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Warm Up Early This Spring With a Workshop on Season Extension Innovations

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2018 February Issue Newsletter

By Caro Roszell, Education Events Coordinator

Constructing caterpillar tunnel

On Monday, February 26, NOFA/Mass and Berkshire Agricultural Ventures are partnering to offer an afternoon workshop, Advancing Season Extension in the Berkshires, with Jim Schultz of Red Shirt Farm in Lanesborough, MA and Jeremy Barker-Plotkin of Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst, MA.

Register for the workshop and find out more here: Advancing Season Extension in the Berkshires.

The workshop will focus on forward-thinking approaches to season extension. Jim Schultz will present his planning and construction process for an innovative, low-input, subterranean heating and cooling system called the climate battery. Installed prior to greenhouse construction, this system uses fans to store daytime heat and humidity underground where it can be released more slowly at night. This system helps to stabilize greenhouse temperatures, improving crop quality and reducing energy inputs.

Jim will also touch on his decision to use a SolaWrap skin for the greenhouse. This new greenhouse skin product, which looks like giant bubble wrap, is more durable, longer-lasting and has a higher R-value than the traditional two-sheet plastic layer with squirrel fan installation. With the SolaWrap skin and climate battery, Jim can warm and cool his greenhouse with lower fuel inputs than more traditional greenhouse construction styles. Jim will discuss the fiscal planning process behind the project as well as the practical considerations and steps involved in building a greenhouse that incorporates the climate battery system. 

Part of the funding for this super-efficient greenhouse came from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Rebecca Trueman and Daniel Tighe from the Pittsfield NRCS office will join us to talk about how to apply for funding for hoop house and greenhouse structures, and what the outlook is for this program. Berkshire Agricultural Ventures (BAV) also provided funding and support for Jim’s greenhouse, and will give a short presentation on how to partner with BAV to finance innovative agricultural ventures in the Berkshire region. Gerry Palano from the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) will also provide an update on grants and financing available for renewable energy projects and efficiency improvements for farm infrastructure.

Another recipient of NRCS and MDAR support for forward-thinking on-farm energy systems, Jeremy Barker-Plotkin will share his experience with several appropriate technologies for season extension on his farm. With year-round CSA options as an integral part of the business plan for his 50-acre integrated vegetable and livestock farm, Jeremy has grown his covered production space to three heated greenhouses, five hoop houses, and two 300-foot caterpillar tunnels. While some of his greenhouses run on propane, his first greenhouse was heated with waste oil for many years before he transitioned it to a combined propane and pellet-stove fueled hydronic heated bench system.

The hydronic (hot water cycling)  bench system covers 300 square feet along one wall of the greenhouse. Jeremy has built a metal bracket structure with roll-up plastic for covering the heated benches at night. This system is used to grow microgreens and seedlings in winter, and as a starting point in spring for most starts. Since he has three heated greenhouses, there are always spots opening up to fill with new seedlings – even in the dead of winter. Since the heat under the flats shortens germination time and allows for faster seedling growth than seen on unheated greenhouse benches, the seedlings spend less time in the greenhouse (increasing flat turnover on valuable bench space) and grows higher-quality solanaceous crops. Jeremy will explain the construction of the hydronic system and his process of trying and determining a renewable fuel source for heating the cycled water.

Jeremy will also talk about caterpillar tunnels – a much lower-tech season extension strategy than a climate battery, but the chief virtues of which are their affordability and portability. They can be taken down and set up in another location on the farm in a matter of hours or, at most, days – depending on length of tunnel and number of crew assigned. A basic homestead caterpillar can be taken down, moved, and set up in a new location with two people in a single afternoon. Caterpillars don’t give the same level of protection as permanent greenhouses, but can significantly improve the performance of important crops like early summer tomatoes, deep winter kale, and shoulder-season greens.

This event is sure to get growers thinking about ways to warm up – efficiently and sustainably! Both the practical and fiscal aspects of improving season extension infrastructure will be discussed, as will the interconnections between available resources. By working together, we can support farmers to continue to challenge current notions of seasonality in farming and to expand the availability of fresh local produce in the Northeast. 

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