Saturday, February 26, 2011

Hoop House 1

It took two days to build. It didn't cost a dime.

I am trying to listen to real farmers. So here's one lesson I can recite, but have yet to learn (and the story of how I am obstinately trying to defy it). Real farmers know better than to try to force an early Spring. Around here, they say mid-May is the time to plant. (Of course, it depends on what you're planting, but...) I have not practiced patience, and this winter is killing me. This time last year, I was planting tomatoes and peppers in raised beds in Arizona.

The Indy Star has run pieces on hoop houses--"greenhouse like structures"--that the USDA is supplying farmers, to extend the growing season. Also known as "tunnels," (low and high), these plastic structures retain heat and protect plants from the elements.

Fortunately, the articles and pictures motivated my Dad. That is all it took to start the project. I've talked big about converting our covered porch into a greenhouse someday, but it needs to come in stages, and I need help.

We used scrap wood from his barn and mine, scrap metal from the roofers, river pebbles Mom and Dad had collected, some kind of wire mesh (I still don't know its original purpose), plastic sheeting from painting the house, and we had all the nails, screws and tools we needed on site.

To make the hoops, we took dry-wall brackets from his barn, bent them to 30 degree angles and locked two into each other so there was no sharp edge, pounded them flat together, then bent them into semi-circles. Voila! Hoops.

I confess I did buy dirt. I needed this mix. Good starter dirt is inert, and I just have buckets of worm compost. Here's something I learned: nutrient-full soil is not the ideal way to start seedlings indoors. Sure, it gives the plants a boost--makes them tall and green--but you want to be strengthening the root system instead. It's all part of the hardening process, preparing sheltered plants to move outdoors. I thought that slowly exposing baby plants to the elements was all you needed to do.

The real problem: I need purely passive heat, from the sun and plastic. If the energy-food balance is off,--if I supply electric or fossil-fuel generated heat and light--I won't be living up to my ideal. From the beginning, I have called this a 21st Century Sustainable Energy Farm.

Alas, "real life" intruded, and the something-for-nothing wish was denied. On the second night, we had snow and the temps dropped to the 20s. The caulking to seal up the corners was in danger of not drying. Without good sealant, I'd have a mess on my hands every time I watered. I found myself running Dad's kerosene heater at full blast, burning fossil fuels--both directly and indirectly, as it plugged into an outlet. (If I were to start on how much propane we have burned this season, this discussion would be moot. That is a more pressing goal, but this project was a fun diversion.)

Was Hoop House 1 a success? Not unequivocal, but perhaps I can call it a compromised success. Actually, Hoop House 1's real test has not yet begun. That starts when I plant the seeds.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Life on the Farm

We moved to our Indiana plot next door to my parents in October of 2010. I imagined I would keep an in-depth blog, but the experience has been far too overwhelming to document on a day-to-day basis.

When Grandpa Burrous (left, teaching me to plant corn) passed away last May, the occasion served as a catalyst to get up and move near family. I dreamed of living near my parents, but we would have had to build on the land behind them. That was out of our price range.

In a rapid turn of events just months after Grandpa's funeral, the man who lived in the house next door to Mom & Dad's became ill and moved to Florida. We decided to leave the sunny, beloved desert of the Southwest to farm here.

The winter has been unforgiving: we've had more snow and ice than I've seen in my ten or so years (taken together) of living in the Midwest and years of winter visits. It has given me a chance to read and learn from others, to plan for indoors and out.
I am charting out our native grasses and wildflowers for soil, water, and wildlife conservation, and making the house more sustainable one step at a time. I am impatient by nature, and this harshest of winters has forced me to be still and accept what is beyond my control.

I would like to chronicle the progress of the place and how it teaches me. Only some of this growth will be for others' consumption. I know that the decision to move here was both sudden and had been building for years. Only perspective will help me tell the story.

In the meantime, the tangible:

1) We replaced an old propane water heater with a heat pump hybrid, which will burn considerably less fossil fuel. However, that (and a leak--now fixed--in our propane tank, which fuels the furnace that has kept us warm this winter) only strengthens my sense of urgency over converting to cleaner sources of fuel. I would love to preserve my lifestyle, but I know that the lifestyle comes at the expense of the planet and, more importantly, other people. Sacrifices will, and should, be made. This first winter away from Arizona (after a decade of acclimating to the climate I knew best as a child), the staggering propane bills convinced me and my husband to keep the house at 68 to 69 degrees.

2) We spray-foamed the completely open crawl space--an expense that also saves gallons of propane a month (maybe as few as 2 or 3 gallons, but at $2 a gallon and the rate we're going through it anyway, that's something). We did other, smaller things that I hope will make a marginal difference: caulked around windows and doors, insulated the hot water pipes (I spent that day on my belly and back in the dark, silver-fish infested crawl space), used canisters of spray foam (I do worry about the chemicals) in holes to the house, etc.

3) We put on a metal roof. This will reflect sunlight and reduce cooling bills in the winter considerably. It also makes the house look more modern, matching our sensibility.

4) We will establish 7.5 acres of native grasses in May. This carries a large up-front cost, but the benefits will last for decades to come. After ten years in the Conservation Resource Program, we might consider taking some of the land out of grasses to farm organically.

The rest will come in stages. We will scale up our composting operation from my two worm bins and outdoor spots by the woods. We plan to get some egg-laying chickens this spring. Of course, I will be busy growing produce for our family--and that family now includes two households. I am deeply gratified to know that we can help my parents around their homestead.

There are political and socio-economic caveats to all of this, more than I will recite here. We recognize that this life change is neither righteous nor consistent, nor is it a choice we advocate for everyone. Nevertheless, we came with the hope that we could live better. Better for the earth. Better for family. Better for ourselves. We will continue to be global citizens--hopefully more conscientious and deliberate than before.

That is the plan (the hope, the dream...) Apologies for the sentimentality here! I promise not to take myself so seriously next time. Slipping on the ice and getting the car stuck in the field keeps us humble.

PS: I forgot these two!
5) We replaced the very old carpets with carpet made from plastic bottles.
6) Of course, we changed all the incandescent light bulbs to CFLs.