Monday, March 26, 2012

Chilling Out

The summer that we bought our land, we lived off-grid while we waited for the legal paperwork that would allow us to buy the farmhouse, sold off from the farm itself 50 years ago. When late autumn weather drove us back indoors in the form of a short-term rental, we kept using the ice packs and cooler that had stood in for a refrigerator during our camping days and Dean turned the apartment fridge into a funky entertainment/work station for his computer and monitor, with storage for the wireless mouse in the butter drawer. Finally in January 2009, we moved into the farmhouse, which had been vacant for six months. After cleaning out our "new" refrigerator, we left the doors open for it to dry out and the mice moved in. They made short work of the insulation in the freezer and that was the end of that appliance -- at least for household use. This winter, we returned it to service in the tractor shed, with a few modifications:

It's an cozy, insulated box to promote the germination of our heat-loving crops: tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, lemongrass . . . The idea is simple, stolen from Teresa and Brent, our friends/mentors over at Red Tail Farm. Dean drilled a hole in the side of the cabinet for a wire, then installed a light socket. Depending how cold it is outside, we screw in either a 60-watt or 20-watt bulb, then using a not-so-scientific system of plugging in the lightbulb or not, hold temps in the 70–90° range. Trays containing the most tropical plants (the spiciest peppers) take the top shelves, while those that prefer lower temps (lemongrass) get the bottom shelf. As each tray hits maximum germination, we move it into the hoop house for full sun and replace it with a freshly seeded tray.

In the coming week, we'll shift to an even more efficient heat source: Compost. Liz Martin at Muddy Fingers Farm has written about their system, for which we've slowly been assembling the components. Our friends Aaron and Kara over at Plowbreak Farm posted photos of theirs. On Saturday, we picked up mulch hay from Ringneck Preserve and later this week we'll get a load of horse manure and bedding from Kelviden Farm, just a mile from us here on West Hill. Turns out the hardest part was getting our hands on some affordable square bales for the "frames." When we did, you can be sure we stockpiled enough to see us through a couple of years' worth of hotboxes. So far, we're pleased with this year's progress. Here are some of the heirloom tomato seedlings, sunning in the hoop house:

One of the reasons we started Tree Gate Farm was our dual concern about energy and land use. We wanted to live more in tune with our values and demonstrate the possibility of an abundant, satisfying, and rewarding life in which conservation tops the decision tree. As weather patterns shift, we're seeing the value of a diversified system that turns waste -- whether old refrigerators or mulch hay bales and horse manure -- into resource. We're also keeping our fingers crossed that by diversifying our crops and income streams, we'll be able to sustain a farm resilient enough to withstand the crazy times coming our way. Already, we're clear on a critical point: We can't do it alone. Fellow farmers share ideas, resources, even tools. CSA members and our wholesale customers provide critical financial support, and both family and friends have been staggeringly generous with moral support. Thank you, all!


  1. Love this. I'm surprised you had a hard time finding affordable bales, since I would assume you can use ruined hay for the endeavor.? Maybe I'm wrong about that. Love the fridge incubator.

  2. I think our problem was timing. Most people who bale hay/keep horses clean out the old bales in April or May, right before they fill the barn with the first cutting of the new year's hay. Mulch bales are also easier to come by in the summer, if they get spoiled by rain before they're stowed away. We found a few options rather distant from us, but the cost of gas in the pickup to haul them isn't inconsequential. Next time I anticipate needing some, I'll try to do my "shopping" at the right time of year.