It’s a damp and overcast day in southern Maine – one whose rolling fog reminds us that despite the colored leaves still perched, we better not forget the onset of winter. For the Farm, the cold signals tucking away the hay wagon into its reserved Mallet Barn space, sliding CSA baskets into the Haze Hut for safekeeping until summer, and leading the cows into the red barn on a mixed diet of hay and grains.
Despite the gloomy early November afternoon, our Teen Ag Coordinator and Production Educator walked through rows of spinach, carrots, and kale towards the skeleton of a nearly complete high tunnel greenhouse. Any other year, they’d be past busiest part of Teen Ag’s season as they wrapped up the CSA in October. This year is different–with many weekends and helping hands building a foundation for Teen Ag to begin year-round growing.
“This season extension project has been in the works for a few years now,” reflects Teen Ag Coordinator Richard Hodges of the opportunity to contribute fresh produce to local food pantries year-round. “Many farms are generous with abundance in the summer months, but winter is different, and that’s when food pantries feel the strain of having limited access to fresh produce.”
With funding from Harvard Pilgrim Healthcare Foundation’s Healthy Food Fund, the new high tunnel greenhouse has been constructed on new growing plots for Teen Ag and will extend their growing and programming season. Heartier crops will be grown under shelter in the colder months and warmer weather crops will be started earlier and keep growing later in the season than without cover. Early in their plans, it was decided to make the greenhouse on wheels, so they can use the field more efficiently. Mobility allows them to pull the structure to cover the crops need them at that time and they’re not limited to growing on the same plot season after season.
Teen Ag began modifying an existing high tunnel greenhouse this summer. “We could’ve just bought ourselves a big kit for a greenhouse on wheels and assembled the pieces,” remarked Production Educator Tom Prohl as he proudly grabbed hold of the repurposed arched bow in the center (it didn’t budge). Prefabricated kits cost roughly $14,000, not far off the ballpark cost of this project. “But look what we’re doing – we had the help of an engineer who is custom designing this to meet our needs. He designed this to be sturdy and functional, so it’s more cost-effective and sustainable than having to replace elements (like the plastic)—or even the whole structure—every few years. This is built to last.”
The high tunnel greenhouse was actively designed with stronger components, different types of bracing for the strong wind loads endemic to Wolfe’s Neck’s coastal positioning, and greater longevity for long-term impact. They also invested in a newer technology for covering greenhouses called Solawrap, which is manufactured in Germany. This durable outer layer of the greenhouse is guaranteed to last at least 20 years and replaces the thinner plastic cover that is more commonly used. They expect this will reduce time and money spent repairing damaged plastic, provides more insulation, and reduces waste. I touch the strip of sample Solawrap lining one pole of the structure – essentially super thick bubble wrap.
After deconstructing the bows from the older high tunnel, the crew re-braced them into a sturdy frame. The wheels are nearly a foot in diameter and are each secured onto a jack. Eight of them line the sides of the structure and can be cranked up, elevating the greenhouse a foot above the soil.
The base of the “end walls” on either end are on hinges and can be lifted up to provide extra clearance for moving the greenhouse over crops in the ground. This keeps the frame above the plants, so they can push the structure into place when the crops needs the cover. Once in place, two-foot long anchors drill the base into the ground for secure footing in the wind-prone field.
On this early November day, the greenhouse is not quite complete, but time is ticking before the winter cold sets in. Al
though the concept of season extension has long been in the works for Wolfe’s Neck Farm, this project required unique logistical planning both from a construction and crop standpoint. “The key to successful winter growing is to plant the right crops at the right time,” explained Prohl. “We already have the carrots, spinach and kale growing, and when the temperatures really begin to consistently cool off, we’ll have mature and strong plants that can survive a frost.”
Maine is the most food insecure state in New England. Over 200,000 residents and 1 in 4 children unsure of where their next meal will come from. A 2015 USDA report revealed that Maine has the 2nd highest rate of “very low food security” in the country. With the added burden of heating costs, hunger increases in the winter and food pantries often struggle to meet this need. “Winter is a time when a lot of folks are deciding between spending money on heating their homes or food,” Hodges explains. “Sometimes, heat wins and food gets the short end of the stick.” With this in mind, Teen Ag is building on our partnership with the Good Shepherd Food Bank and area food pantries and will grow cold-hardy crops, like carrots, kale, and spinach for area food pantries this winter.
Unlike the arid land conditions that can occur in greenhouses, this structure’s mobility differently allows the soil to regenerate between crop cycles. Land not covered by the greenhouse can be fertilized, planted with cover crops, and tilled—all while having access to rain and snow pack. This supports our efforts to promote more sustainable farming practices.
The Teen Ag crew will be able to grow more simultaneously and maintain much better soil health. The new mobile greenhouse will allow them to grow two successions of crops simultaneously. The vision is for the greenhouse to first cover the kale, spinach, and carrots growing on the plot. As the temperature warms, it’ll transition its use to be a space for tomatoes, sweet potatoes, basil and peppers, which would thrive in the greenhouse conditions. For Hodges, this is just the beginning. “This is just the start of season extension for Teen Ag – ideally we’ll double it next year.”