My old cross country skis wore out last winter, so I got a new pair for myself in December. One of my great winter joys is skiing to work at the other end of the farm, but this winter, I didn’t get a chance to put them on until last weekend after our first snowstorm. That sure didn’t last, as you are all well aware: 2 inches of rain yesterday has melted just about all of the remaining snow. Our wet summer is another example of how the new abnormal has affected all of us who are in New England agriculture. I’m sure that you were just as distressed as I was to hear about the IPCC report giving us only 12 years to radically reduce our carbon emissions. One of the chief attributes needed to be a farmer, at least my kind of farmer, is to be an eternal optimist, and to keep showing up. The bright side of the IPCC report is that the reduction in carbon emissions that we need is technically achievable. Our newest farm infrastructure project takes a stab at one piece of the problem.
We have been growing winter salad greens since Simple Gifts Farm started in Belchertown in 1999. The earliest attempts at the winter greens revolution featured unheated greenhouses, but lately we have found that adding just a little bit of heat makes a huge difference in the growth of the salad greens. Just keeping the greenhouses from freezing by setting the thermostat at 34 degrees allows us to keep lettuce, arugula, bok choy, salad mix, and radishes alive and even growing during the shortest days of winter. The sun heats the greenhouses during the day, and it takes just a little bit of heat to keep things from freezing at night.
Of course we wanted to find a renewable source of heat for our greenhouses, and our first attempt, back when we started farming in Amherst in 2006, was used vegetable oil from fry-heavy restaurants. It seemed like the perfect solution; a free resource that would allow us to heat our greenhouse without using fossil fuels! Well, come to find out, lots of people had the same idea, so it wasn’t exactly a free resource. We seemed to have a knack for finding restaurants that were about to go out of business, such as the ill-fated Mr. Chicken (who used a whole heck of a lot of grease, and made some delicious fried chicken, for a very short period of time.) The grease was also pretty gross to handle; my Subaru of those days never recovered after a 5 gallon jug of the stuff fell over and spilled in the back. To top it off, the thing just didn’t work. I know a whole lot more than I ever wanted to about why, as we overcame several technical obstacles only to find new ones over the course of the 6 years that I struggled with the thing.
In 2013, we made the transition to a new system with a wood pellet boiler that heated our one main greenhouse. That has worked much better; but starting in 2015, we decided that we wanted to be able to offer more greens in the depths of winter, so we have built a series of 3 new big greenhouses that will all be on this low-temp heating program for the winter. We have been searching for the best solution to heat all of these greenhouses sustainably, and have now secured grant funding for centralized boiler powered by wood chips that heats all 3 new greenhouses, along with the original. The central plant will add some efficiency, and the wood chips are a local renewable fuel. The state is encouraging the development of wood-chip heating as a way of using the low-quality timber that is produced as a by-product of timber stand improvement. We estimate that we will save about 37 tons of fossil fuel carbon a year from making the shift. The construction will start when the ground thaws out in the spring. Next winter, when you eat your Simple Gifts Farm greens, you can know that you are helping to give a small shove in the effort to turn the climate behemoth around.