Story by Marcia Vanderlip
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Jennifer Grabner slogged through mud recently en route to the site of her future livelihood: more than half a dozen hoop houses behind her Ashland home. The wind was brisk, but sun warmed the greenhouse plastic covering her young lettuces, spinach, chard, carrots, beets and other cool-weather vegetables. In all, she plans to grow 20 to 25 various cool-season crops this year.
“This is fun when the sun is shining,” she said as she walked through one of her 20-foot-long tunnels. She pulled a plump golden beet from rich, composted soil. The cool weather improves the flavor and brightens the color of many of the vegetables, she explained as she plucked baby carrots and deep purple beets. She pointed to tiny potato sprouts, optimistic that she could have potatoes in January.
Although many farmers were wrapping up their CSA season last week, late October marked the beginning of Grabner’s budding winter CSA, which will extend into April. This year, Grabner already is harvesting cool-weather crops for 18 families. CSA, or community-supported agriculture, is like subscription farming. The consumer pays for a weekly allotment of a farm’s produce during the growing season. Grabner’s customers pay week to week, she said, so if she has no produce, she doesn’t get paid. “I feel more comfortable with that — for now,” she said.
This year Grabner increased her CSA shares after adding five more passive-solar hoop houses on a small portion of her family’s 5-acre plot. A year and a half ago, this area held only “a ratty shed, sheep, goats and some chickens.” After clearing out the shed and the animals last fall, she was able to provide winter produce for eight families from October to April.
“We would have gone in debt,” she said, if she hadn’t received a $5,588 two-year U.S. Department of Agriculture grant through the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. The USDA gives SARE grants to farmers who do not use chemicals and who reduce harmful impact on the environment in their farming practices. The SARE grant allowed Grabner to jump-start her business without breaking the family bank. “When we talk about sustainability at our house, we also mean economic sustainability,” she said.
These same grants have helped other families live their hoop dreams — which are not always uniformly sweet.
Walker Claridge received a SARE grant three years ago to build a third hoop house at his 4-acre farm near Fulton.
“There’s a lot of work involved” with hoop houses, he said recently. “You have to baby-sit them, keep an eye on the seven-day forecast so you don’t see the winds pulling off the covers.” And even under plastic cover, some crops still require floating row covers — or plant blankets — when temperatures freeze.
Still, year-round farming is catching on in Mid-Missouri as consumers demand more local produce.
When Grabner advertised her winter CSA at the farmers markets in the spring, she was flooded with takers. “I had to turn a lot of people away.”
“A lot of farmers at the market invested in hoop houses this past year,” said Rex Roberts, a farmer and board president for the Columbia Farmers Market.
Roberts, who offered a “small winter CSA” this year to 11 families, is growing lettuce, arugula and kale in his hoop house in Marshall.
“There is a huge learning curve,” involved in hoop-house growing, he said. “My first hoop house was wiped out by a tornado.” In addition, “you get less light in the winter, so growth can be slower.”
Grabner, who is 40 and currently a stay-at-home farmer, is in the thick of that learning curve. Her husband, Keith, an ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, helped her construct the unheated hoop-style houses, and their three children, ages 5, 7 and 10, all help out in the garden. But mostly “this is a one-woman operation,” Grabner said. “I’m glad I don’t have to depend on this for my livelihood.”
This fall was so wet and cool she faced some trouble germinating seed and starting plants. She is now building a small, heated greenhouse for that purpose. Grabner hasn’t had a problem with the wind yet and speculated that it might help to set up the structures running east-west. Her newest addition — a larger hoop house from a kit — faces north-south. “We’ll see how it does this year.”
The Grabners constructed six of the eight hoop houses behind their Ashland home from welded-wire cattle panels wired together and bent into tunnels. Five panels make a greenhouse that is 20 feet long and 7 feet wide. The outer opening is lined with used garden hoses to keep the sharp metal from tearing the greenhouse plastic. Most are anchored on long baseboards, which they salvaged from the old shed. The boards are anchored with long stakes.
“You could put one of these together for about $200,” Grabner said.
Grabner, who is a trained botanist, began her plans to extend the season about five years ago after watching a presentation at the National Small Farm Trade Show in Columbia. An extension specialist explained how sunlight could heat a tank of water in a hoop house during the day, which would then emit enough heat to raise the interior temperature at night.
Then she read Eliot Coleman’s books about gardening in cold weather. Coleman, an organic farmer and researcher, is known for his cold-weather growing techniques. “He was doing this without tanks of water. I thought: If he can do it in Maine, I can do it in Missouri.”
“The key to growing in the winter is timing,” she explained, “so I have things to harvest in the dead of winter, when the days are short” and plants grow slowly. Grabner is recording what she learns about growing in Central Missouri because locals currently have no manual. As part of the grant, she will record her experiences to share with home gardeners and farmers. On Friday, Grabner passed on what she has learned about cool season growing at the 17th National Small Farm Trade Show & Conference.
“There is not a lot of information on how long it takes things to germinate in December. Or how fast a spinach plant will grow in February in Central Missouri. No one writes about that; we are figuring that out.” She has delighted in the hardiness of some vegetables. Last year, she learned that bok choy grows during the coldest and shortest days of the year. The real advantage to growing in winter is “you don’t have the bugs and disease” that plague summer growers.
“We could all do this,” she said, realizing she was building on a long tradition. “My great-grandmother had a cold frame in her garden.”
Grabner still keeps a couple of cold frames, but she also has gleaned ideas from more modern urban farmers. After attending a workshop by Will Allen, the founder of the Milwaukee-based Growing Power, which promotes inner-city gardens, she realized she didn’t need a tractor to till the soil under her hoop houses.
Allen “was building raised beds on paved, abandoned lots” because the soil beneath was contaminated. “He just covered the pavement with a 6-inch layer of wood chips and put a layer of compost and soil over it,” she said. “I realized that we don’t have to have a tractor, we can do this by hand,” she said. She tried the Allen approach when she erected her latest hoop house. “We mowed the grass, put down landscape fabric, a layer of wood chips and 8 inches of compost and soil. It worked fine, and we don’t stir up weed seed.”
She also has extended her hoop knowledge to Southern Boone Elementary School, where she helped create a school garden three years ago. The school now has a hoop house, and she will help build a second one there next week. The hoop houses will be used as part of the popular garden programs at the school.
“This is what I want to do,” she said that chilly afternoon, holding up a bouquet of freshly picked root vegetables. “I love this.”
Read the first part of this series here: http://m.columbiatribune.com/news/2009/nov/04/undercover-farming/