Silver Creek Farm is 75 acres in northeastern Ohio halfway between Cleveland and the Pennsylvania border. The main cash crop comes form 25 acres of certified organic vegetables. A 100 head ewe flock provides both meat and fiber. Seasonally, it produces approximately 1,000 fryers and 50 turkeys. The principal means of marketing is through a 75 household CSA, a farm retail store and a very few wholesale accounts. The Farm is home for the Small Farm Research and Education Center a 501 C3 corporation whose purpose is to enhance the status and welfare of the small, family farms within the region.
The current greenhouse is the conventional, high input variety. Certified organic seedlings as well as pre and post season crops are all important to our bottom line. We need to cut costs for this part of our operation to become sustainable.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
The goal of this grant was to determine the economic feasibility of a low energy input greenhouse in an area impacted during the fall, winter and spring by lake effect climate. The “lake effect” means that land east and southeast of Lake Erie tends to have more cloudy days than land not located in such an area. Northeast Ohio and Seattle have the same number of cloud covered days. These cloudy days would mean less solar energy making it a tough, realistic test site. The only non-solar energy used was the electricity needed to run a small squirrel cage fan that kept the two layers of plastic inflated. In addition to the plastic, as the temperature began to progressively drop, during the night we would use hoops with row covers as well as row covers directly on the crop. These secondary covers would be removed during daylight hours because the principal concept was that the solar energy would warm the ground sufficiently to keep everything going through out the night.
Initially we anticipated that the greenhouse would serve as a season extender in both directions. It would allow us to have crops in the ground earlier and to keep them productive longer than would have otherwise been the case. For example, it is unusual for us to have a season long enough for sweet bell peppers to turn from green to red.
Our farm has had a CSA in place for 11 years and with the unpredictable nature of our spring weather we have had to work hard to get something in and out of the ground for the first spring delivery. The climate control that we would have because of the solar greenhouse would give us an early crop regardless of the field conditions. Possible season extension combined with serving the CSA needs and increasing our other marketing opportunities made us look at this low energy greenhouse as another way to ensure the sustainability of our farm.
Fall ’01 Planting:
Fall 2001 was the first season the new greenhouse was planted to see which cool weather crops would do best for us as season extenders. The soil was prepared using a broad time fork with some work done with a small ¼ horsepower tiller. The actual seeding was done with a pinpoint seeder, a hand tool that rolls along the surface of the soil that deposits multiple of rows of seeds at one time. It is an excellent planter to make efficient use of the limited seeding space by planting dense rows. Crops seeded that fall included a mesclun salad mix, romaine lettuce, spinach, kale, perennial arugula, baby turnips, beets, bok choy, and parsley. Calendulas were transplanted. By mid-October, just as we had our first hard frost, we began to harvest our first crops from the greenhouse.
In September 2002 we had an Open House for anyone interested in seeing the greenhouse in production. Approximately twenty people attended, some of whom had been part of the earlier two day construction workshop and some of whom responded to a paid announcement in a community newspaper. There were questions about construction techniques and costs, as well as about what had been seeded and what we expected to harvest. Students from a Montessori Farm School were part of that audience. They were on assignment to gather information as their school had plans to construct a similar greenhouse. The Open House ended with a taste test of baby Harkai turnips and everyone harvested a bag of greens to take home.
During December and January due to the short day lengths there was little plant growth. Row covers (Remay) were suspended over wire hoops to retain heat at night, and though we continued to harvest, the quantities were not so great. Come February and longer days the plants took off with new growth. At the same time we were preparing areas to put in new plantings and transplants. The first crops to be seeded were salad greens and Asian greens such as bok choy and mizuna. Mid April tomato seedlings were planted along the south edge. Both heirloom varieties such as Brandywine, Green Zebra, Big Rainbow and a hybrid variety, Celebrity, were selected for trialing. Basil seedlings were positioned close to the tomatoes and plants were mulched with compost. Ace pepper plants were next planted and two varieties of eggplants followed. Soon it seemed it every available inch of space was taken and plants grew in this environment effortlessly, or so it appeared to this organic farmer! There were not the usual flea beetle attacks on spring greens and no early blossom end rot on tomatoes. Greens were filling CSA bags in May when our fields were wet and our peas had disappeared among the weeds. Peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes produced three times what we ever got from field production. The quality was superior with blemish-free products the norm.
The 2002 season turned out to provide all the proof imaginable of the merits of the greenhouse: a cold and soggy spring followed by a hot summer drought. During July and August we lost row after row of directly seeded and transplanted crops. Those crops that got a start somewhat later when the nights began to cool off, just stalled out.
On September 1, 2000 Steve Moore presented a two day workshop at our farm for an audience of about 30 people. He discussed and demonstrated how to select a site, the optimum greenhouse size and design, as well as its drainage and solar orientation. With the help of the participants in the group the plot was surveyed and the hoop locations staked out. The four corners were dug and set in concrete with the remaining holes and hoops to be dug and poured when time allowed. Much of the workshop was taken up showing slides of the, interior and exterior of his S.E. Pennsylvania greenhouse, lectures, questions, answers and recommendations on production techniques. He used his greenhouse not only at both ends of the growing season but, much to our surprise, throughout the summer as well. Many of us who had had the experience of trying to grow crops in 90 degree days and 70 degree nights were skeptical but interested. Typically summer temperatures inside the greenhouse could be expected to reach 120. At temperatures like that blossoms drop off, pollination does not occur, and plants become dormant. How could plants survive let alone thrive in a greenhouse with temperatures too high for people to work?