“Food and energy, these are the things that will continue to rise in price,” according to Sally Erickson who is so convinced that she built a large, year-round green house that does not rely on any additional heating system. The 24×72-foot structure constructed this past fall at her South Street residence in Eastport is already providing, in late February, enough greens to sell to the local food co-op.
Before moving to Eastport in 2010, Erickson and her partner, Timothy Bennett, produced a feature-length movie from their North Carolina home titled What a Way to Go. The film dramatically illustrates the world’s environmental uncertainty. After a screening tour, they headed north looking for a place to settle down. “We took a left turn, out of the heat and into a place of seasons,” they said of their move.
While Bennett was working on his science fiction novel (All the Above was published last year), Erickson was looking to make a tangible stake in the landscape. In spring of 2011, she attended a greenhouse workshop hosted by the Washington County Food and Fuel Alliance (WCF&FA) and purchased a large quantity of reduced cost polycarbonate panels provided by the group before she even knew where she was going to build.
The perfect spot for Erickson’s greenhouse turned out to be right across the street from their house on a plot of city owned land. Through a bidding process, they were able to acquire the small lot with a perfect southern exposure. Using locally-milled lumber and other materials purchased in town, together with a small crew, the building went up in six weeks for a cost of $25,000 and “lots of sweat equity,” according to Erickson.
What makes this design different from most other greenhouses in the area is the heating system that draws heat from the high ceiling down under the dirt floor. Three layers of four-inch corrugated drainage pipe winds throughout the floor set into two and a half feet of sand and gravel. These are connected to large pipes reaching to the ceiling with temperature-activated fans that keep the building warm throughout the winter. The system is helped by a heavily insulated back north wall.
The Greenhouse Food Project, begun by Blue Hill residents Tom Adamo and Tony Ferrara has contributed to the construction of more than 100 greenhouses that are capable of year-round growing. “Besides my greenhouse, I have seen several recently bursting with bright green plants,” says Ferrar. And he says that these systems are only getting more technically-advanced: “I visited a commercial lettuce grower who explained that soil temperature was more important than air temperature for winter plant growth. Their production increased 20 percent after installing a system of blowing the hot day’s air under the beds. Although the system was not visible, I was able to take the idea and design a system which would take the hot air at the ridge and blow it into 1” stones at the base of raised beds.” Erikson’s system is a variation on this design.
Adamo and Ferrar have been coordinating with WCF&FA for the past two years by leading greenhouse workshops. The mission of the Washington County organization (from their website) is “to increase healthy local produce for food pantries and school children, strengthening community and economic sustainability.” Each project is asked to give back to the community by donating at least 10 percent of the produce to the local food pantry. With its workshops and reduced-price materials, the program is responsible for at least 28 greenhouse projects in Washington County. Of note are two student-built and maintained projects, one at Perry Elementary School and one at the University of Maine at Machias.
In Eastport, Erickson and Bennett have taken the idea of strengthening community to another level by inviting two young people into their business, providing them a place to live and sharing the risks and rewards of their fledgling market garden.
Emily Guirl and her partner Micah Pacucci took the opportunity, motivated by the idea of a job that included a daily “absorption of chlorophyll.” Together with Erickson and Bennett, they plan to continue expansion of the growing area within the structure and develop the gardens outside. “In this community everyone in farming is willing to share ideas and experience,” says Guirl. “They recognize that more farming is good for everyone.”