CRAFT Farm Tour – April 8, 2017
Thatchmore Farm – Season Extension & Alternative Energy
Tom Elmore, a long-time OGS master farmer, invited us to his farm for the first CRAFT tour of the 2017 season. The theme, focusing on Season Extension & Alternative Energy on the farm, brought over 40 students, apprentices, farmers, and OGS staff for a very lively event!
Thatchmore Farm is nestled in the mountains in Leicester, NC, with enough flat land for only one acre of intensive annual vegetable cultivation — the rest of the enterprise is focused on perennial fruits and ornamentals, which are easier to grow on the sloped acreage of the farm. The land that is dedicated to vegetables is mostly protected with heated greenhouses and landscape fabric — Thatchmore is famous for their early-season tomatoes and season extension practices.
Tom’s practices include an extensive use of row cover, which Tom explained the science behind. “It’s not that there’s actually much temperature difference inside vs. outside the row cover,” he explains, “But instead, the row cover creates a vapor barrier between the crops and the outside; it’s essentially insulating the plants as the cold sets in at night (preventing freezing by creating a frost layer on the row cover), and again as the sun hits them in the morning (preventing cellular rupture from rapid temperature change). Row cover also helps prevent damaging effects of high-speed wind, as well as creates an artificial cloud cover, diffusing the sunlight, which prevents infrared radiation loss.” Tom uses 9-gauge high-tensile wire from Southern States to create his row cover ‘hoops’, placed every 5 feet. “If you want to know more about me and row cover, be sure to google ‘Row Cover Marriage Saver’”, he chuckled. The benefits are endless.
Tom’s most pertinent advice to extend your growing season? Pick the right crops! Microclimates are tough to deal with, so getting to know yours is important — what can you grow in February that not everyone else can? Finding niche off-season markets has been important to
the thriving Thatchmore Farm. Tom’s famous tomatoes, for example, arrive significantly earlier than other tomatoes at the market — on the early-April date of our tour, the plants were already reaching maturity. His early (and abundant) tomatoes are also encouraged by his use of CO2 supplementation, which increases the efficiency of photosynthesis causing the plants to yield at about a 20% higher rate. Using the “Dutch Single-Stem” growing design, the plants snaked high up the twine tied up to support their elongating stems. Although the early-season tomato seeds cost $1 a pop and grafted starts cost $2.50 each, he can get enough off of them at the market for the high input to pay off.
What makes Tom’s operation stand out is his clear dedication to alternative energy and on-farm energy production. Wherever you turn, he has an alternative to the traditional fossil-fuel band aids that have infiltrated our first-world culture. Ever since he and his wife moved to this land almost 30 years ago, they’ve been moving towards the direction of being a net producer (vs. consumer) of energy. The first step, Tom explained, is tightening everything up — invest in some
caulk and insulation, and decrease your need for active heating by paying attention to basic design elements in your home. Diminishing your dependence on electric is the first step towards energy independence!
Passive solar energy is the easiest way to get energy from the sun, and should be something you’re thinking about as you’re designing infrastructure on your farm. It’s often not expensive, and can be increased dramatically by altering basic placement of building elements.
Most of Tom’s alternative energy tools are pretty basic and something you could easily do at home — he pointed out a passive ‘solar oven’ on his porch, a pressure cooker that had been painted black with a turkey bag on top, rigged to cook his lentil and rice dish for the potluck. And not all alternative energy solutions will work for any farm! Tom explained his research into running a micro-hydro operation off of Dix Creek, which traces the edge of his property line. After much research and debate, it was found to be extremely cost prohibitive; similar was his research into wind turbines, which seem to be pretty infeasible in our mountainous region (though if you’re curious about the wind energy potential in a specific spot, look into buying an anemometer, very affordable and designed specifically for this purpose). Finding an alternative energy solution that works for your land specifically is very important! And the only way to do that is with adequate research into all of your options. Tom suggested Homepower Magazine and Lehman’s as two resources to help you in your research.
So solar energy is Tom’s alternative energy of choice, and he uses it in every way he can from Hardy Lejeune solar water collectors to his solar, exhaust-free electric chain saw from Lowes (powered by a marine deep-cycle battery) and woodsplitter (Ramsplitter Log Splitters). With his solar panel set up, he can offset about 98% of the energy consumed on his farm with solar energy produced on his farm; most of the energy goes to run the house, the fans in the greenhouse, and the walk-in cooler.
Thatchmore has two heated greenhouses, one heated by a cord wood furnace (that cost about $1,500) and one by a “Wood Master” Boiler (which heats water that is then pumped through the structure.) The boiler is run off of ‘pellets’ that are purchased off the farm — a break in the closed-loop circuit that Tom hopes one day to remedy. The boiler was a demonstration project through the WNC energyCAP program (which periodically have weatherization grants available for farmers — the machine cost about $5,500). This greenhouse also has a reflective thermal curtain that Tom installed, that allows the overall greenhouse space to be reduced and insulated at night. The insulative curtain reflect infrared radiation and is semi-porous to prevent condensation; it is much easier to operate than exterior greenhouse insulation.
Tom has had a difficult time with his heated greenhouses and propagation house (built by Conley Greenhouses) caving in due to snowpack weight; all of his infrastructure is now doubly-supported by large round posts through the middle of the structures, to help take the load off in the dead of winter. “The best thing to do when you know a heavy, wet snow is coming? Turn off the insulation blower and turn up the heat!” says Tom, explaining that by removing the barrier between the interior and exterior temperatures, you’re more likely to melt the snow as it lands on top of the greenhouse. Investing in cathedral vs. quonset hut style greenhouses help with this issue as well.
Thanks so much to Tom and his wife Karen for hosting CRAFT and inspiring us to become more self-sufficient!
Now is the time to join CRAFT for 2017! WNC CRAFT is a year-round farmer training collaborative that offers farmers, farm workers and aspiring farmers networking and learning opportunities. For more information or to join, click here. Or contact Cameron Farlow, Organic Growers School Farmer Programs Director at 828.338.9465 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Author: Sera Deva
Sera Deva has a B.S. in Microbiology & Agroecology from The Evergreen State College. She works with OGS as the Director of Programs & Systems Design, is the President of the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG) Board of Directors, and is the Administrative Director for The Firefly Gathering. When she’s not geeking out over genetics, systems theory or soil hydrology, she spends her time growing and eating food in the South Toe Valley in Burnsville, NC.