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Crops in the cold: Bemidji Community Food Shelf partnering with U of M on winter greenhouse

Prototype Deep Winter Greenhouse designed by researcher Daniel Handeen of the University of Minnesota College of Design Center for Sustainable Building Research.

BEMIDJI -- The University of Minnesota Extension Service and the Bemidji Community Food Shelf are working to bridge the gap between growing seasons.

The partnership is part of a extension service program to construct solar greenhouses that can operate and grow crops in the coldest months of the year.

This spring, the university selected Bemidji Community Food Shelf as one of five partners statewide to build the prototype facility.

"We have been working with a few community members on these greenhouses for a few years now. It's helping farmers grow during the winter with no propane or very little propane," said Greg Schweser, associate director for local foods and sustainable agriculture at the university. "We have this prototype design and we know there's interest in this technology, so we found five organizations willing to show our design."

Solar greenhouses are designed to dramatically limit the amount of fossil fuel required to grow crops in winter, the extension service says. The greenhouses are oriented in an east-west design with specifications to maximize solar energy. The solar power is then stored in an underground thermal mass made up of an insulated rock bed that's covered with soil.

Additionally, the greenhouses feature perforated drain tile that's laid out in the underground rock bed and the facility can use air vents that connect to the underground heat storage.

The Bemidji greenhouse will likely be constructed next summer with a growing season of winter 2017-2018.

"We've had a long relationship now with the extension, such as their help with our Farm Project. People on the greenhouse initiative have worked with us before, they were here to help us move into our current building and they helped produce a five-year plan in 2013 for our farm," said Jack Judkins, vice president of Food Shelf board. "When extension offered this program, we made a couple of calls and it took off from there. We felt that we're in a good position because the goals of this program are about research and education and we're public here, so the traffic would appeal to them."

In exchange for support with building the solar greenhouse, the food shelf will allow for University of Minnesota research projects for three years.

Fundraising underway

According to Judkins, the university will provide 50 percent of the funding for the $30,000 project, leaving $15,000 for the food shelf. Judkins said the fundraising effort has already made progress with a $5,000 donation from Beltrami Electric Cooperative.

The greenhouse will be able to grow “cold crops” that thrive with minimal light throughout the middle of winter, providing year-round production capacity. These crops can range from herbs, broccoli, kale, collards, Chinese cabbage and pea shoots.

"For our greenhouse, we will mainly grow greens with different kinds of lettuces," Judkins said. "One thing that this will answer is can this be expanded upon. Can we start to stretch out and expand on what we can grow."

"It's going to be interesting to find out what people like in terms of the greens that we will be providing," said Food Shelf Director Mary Mitchell. "It will be an educational process in finding out what they know and how they use it at home."

After construction, the greenhouse will be owned and operated by Bemidji Community Food Shelf. The growing season will likely begin in November through March. However, this can depend on the location. The other four locations getting a greenhouse include Central Lakes College in Brainerd, the Organic Consumers Association in Finland, the Alternative Roots Farm in Madelia and the Lake City Catholic Workers Farm.

At all five of the greenhouses, the summer months may result in less usage, although Schweser said there's still room for experimentation with them in warm weather.

"Traditionally, these greenhouses are left dormant over the summer as they become very hot, since they're built to maintain the temperature in winter," Schweser said. “There are some uses, though. For example, they can be used to sterilize equipment since it gets so hot, it can kill germs. Also, another idea is using it as a potential food dehydrator. There's a chance we could see a project around that idea."

Most important for the Food Shelf, though, is the ability to provide fresh produce in an environmentally friendly manner for those who walk through its doors.

"It should be a big step up from what we do now. The freshness will be the best thing about it," Judkins said. "Sustainability is also something we've been concerned about from the start, so we want to operate in the most efficient way possible and be as clean as we can be. With the greenhouse, it's good that it can use the sun to help heat itself."

"It allows the Food Shelf to grow in all seasons and provide fresh produce year round and anything that's grown for research purposes can still be provided at the Food Shelf, too," Schweser said.

Judkins said  anyone who's interested in helping to build or donate to the greenhouse or work at the Food Shelf can reach the organization by visiting or calling (218) 444-6580.

Matthew Liedke

Matthew Liedke is the city, county and state government reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He also covers business, politics and financial news.

(218) 333-9791