Little Greenhouse on the Winter Prairie

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As the biggest winter storm in years swoops down on parts of the Upper Midwest, I can’t help but think of an 18 by 24 foot island of summer that’s confounding the weather forecast by producing fresh, green vegetables for 15 families.

Carol Ford and Chuck Waibel have developed a passive solar greenhouse on the side of their garage in the western Minnesota farm town of Milan. It’s low-tech, but, as the Ear to the Ground No. 29 podcast featuring Ford shows, the thinking that went into the greenhouse is anything but simplistic. They have combined engineering, thermodynamics and innovative organic vegetable production techniques to create a winter garden amidst thousands of acres of frozen corn and soybean fields.

Greenhouse vegetable production is nothing new. But the design, operation and low-input nature of this one is fairly unique. Through the help of a clever system that utilizes heat storing rocks and fans, the greenhouse produces vegetables almost entirely without the benefit of supplemental gas heat. Ford estimates that last winter they used about $50 worth of propane to heat the greenhouse during unusually long stretches of cloudy weather. The greenhouse also grows vegetables without artificial lighting.

Ford and Waibel are in their second season as a winter Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operation. Like a traditional CSA operation, Garden Goddess, as their operation is called, sells subscriptions to consumers. In return, they provide a weekly delivery of fresh, organic produce. But that’s where the similarities end. Garden Goddess is starting its season in the fall just as most other vegetable operations are shutting down for the year.

They started the winter CSA after taking the Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings course. Through the course, the gardeners learned how to research and create the kinds of information networks needed to develop an enterprise that is breaking new ground. They also learned how to create a business plan that would make it possible for a completely off-the-wall proposal to be taken seriously by lenders.

On a recent winter night, with prairie winds blowing in more snow, Ford gave me a tour of the Garden Goddess greenhouse. The outside temperature was hovering around 20 degrees, but inside it was at least 30 degrees warmer. Earlier in the day, the late winter sun had made it a sultry 80 degrees-plus in the greenhouse.

“Let me tell ya, you grab yourself an ice tea and your summer hat and your t-shirt and you come out and sit in the greenhouse and it’s all worth it on that day… It’s a real perk, ” Ford said with a laugh.

The Garden Goddess winter CSA system has garnered a lot of attention in recent months, and not just because it’s a pleasant place to drink tea in February. Carol and Chuck have given tours and answered an array of questions about this innovative food production set-up. Ford is presenting at the Homegrown Economy conference on Feb. 26, a sign that local food production enterprises like Garden Goddess are being taken seriously by those interested in rural economic development. The greenhouse has even attracted the attention of groups looking for ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by cutting energy use. How’s that for ironic: cutting greenhouse gases with gasless greenhouses?

One of the main points Ford likes to make when talking about this system is that they set it up intentionally to be a side enterprise, not the major focus of their lives. The operation demands about five to six hours of the couple’s time weekly. “Just about anybody can scrape up that kind of time,” Carol maintains.

Both Ford and Waibel have other jobs and although the CSA is breaking even—the total price tag for the greenhouse system was around $18,000—it’s not their main source of income. The couple has no desire to do something like this on a mega-scale and supply all of western Minnesota with greens during the winter. Not that it hasn’t been tempting to expand given the positive reaction to the food being produced. Ford estimates the demand for what they are growing now is 10 times what they can supply.

But why not spread the wealth (and the greens) around a little bit? Ford and Waibel see this kind of enterprise as a perfect low-risk venture that could be dispersed throughout the countryside in a variety of forms. The simple, compact nature of their greenhouse design would be a perfect fit for farms that have other enterprises going. It could also work on the roof of a hospital or school, on the side of a nursing home, or in the back of a restaurant.

As I entered the little greenhouse on the prairie, I noticed a colorful homemade sign was posted a little above eye level. “The Door into Summer,” it read. It comes from the title of a Robert Heinlein book. The novel is science fiction, and Carol concedes that when she was first talking about raising vegetables in the middle of a Minnesota winter some people thought she’d just arrived on the shuttle from Planet Goofball. The Garden Goddess winter CSA may be based on a little science, but it’s far from fiction. I’ve tasted its greens as winter stars wheeled above and snow pelted the panes, and they’re much more real than anything you’ll find in the produce aisle of the neighborhood Cub.

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