Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Real Food Growing at Sunset Farms

WELLSVILLE  If there is a place in Wellsville where science and nature hold hands and move brightly toward the future, it is at Sunset Farms on South Hill. The bioshelter/henhouse/experiment is, just for now, an unproven construction of rock, compost and calculations but over the next few months it will become a producing farm. The farm – one that will produce vegetables year round - is being created by Andrew Harris.      
        You might know Andrew Harris as the owner of Better Days Pub and Eatery. He owned and managed the business from the kitchen with a menu featuring as much local food as possible.
        After selling the business, Harris looked for a new career, one that would teach him more, help him spread knowledge, include the gentle use of his land and promote both local foods and a plant based diet.
        That led him to Sunset Farm, his own venture into growing food year round on a solar powered farm with help from RenewableRochester.com.
        Approaching the farm, the first view is of a clean, modern, deceptively simple building. Nothing about the building (called the Mothership after a Led Zeppelin album) is simple. The majority of space is given to 7 parallel raised beds.
        Under the beds are trenches that form a subterranean heating and cooling system 4 feet below the building. The trenches are insulated and hold a system of perforated plastic pipes. The pipes are sized for optimal air flow and heavy enough to support hundreds of pounds of crushed rock and soil.
        In the summer, cool air from the ground will flow into the growing area to lower the temperature and in the winter fans will move warm air from the peak into the system to warm the rocks and the soil and keep food growing year round.
        The plants sprout from a mix of peat moss,perlite/vermiculite and clean food-quality compost using the increasingly popular “square foot method” in which beds are fertilized with compost between growth cycles.
        Every surface inside the building is light-reflecting white. Light pours in through the glazing on the southern roof. The 16mm Lexan polycarbonate sheeting is designed and engineered to diffuse and filter light. Blue and ultraviolet rays pass through and promote plant growth but reds are reflected.
        The material, with a 10 year warranty, has a R value of 7 and is hail proof. The roof is pitched to both capture sunlight and shed snow. The other sides are insulated, solid walls.
        Separated from the raised beds but within the structure is the hen and goat housing leading to a ¼ acre pasture with plans for a 1 acre pond. Nesting boxes will invite 40 chickens to lay during the day and roost at night. The number isn’t random. 1 hen will produce manure for 10 square feet and these beds measure 400 square feet.
        Next to the nests is a paddock for 2 troublesome goats. The goats present a challenge since they will trample anything, eat everything and jump over what others might see as barriers.
        There is an electric ribbon fence around the chicken/goat pasture but goats aren’t bothered by anything less than 8-12 joules of electricity. Unfortunately that’s enough to kill a chicken so the bottom ribbons need to be higher than a chicken’s inquisitive beak and the solar panels will have to hum along to produce enough power for the fence and fans.
        A door at the end of the henhouse serves as a compost passage for the transference of manure to an interior composting bed. Compost isn’t as simple as pile it up and let it rot. Strict rules govern time and temperature for the composting process. After the process starts inside the building it must move outside to a windrow. The strict process will provide a natural control of bacteria.
        Everything is designed to work within natural cycles. Nitrogen will cycle from chicken and goat manure to be broken down by bacteria into compost which will fertilize the growing beds and then emerge in plants to, in part, nourish the animals and the farmers.
        Natural insect control will be the job of pecking chickens and occasional introduction of predator insects.
        There’s a cycle of energy as heat and cold will flow in this controlled loop to keep the temperature of the soil above 65 degrees. There’s a cycle of carbon dioxide. Given off by the animals at night, it will be pumped through a filter into the growing area to give the plants a higher density of carbon dioxide, optimizing photosynthesis.
        There is a test garden already producing seed and the growing area has space for a vertical garden later when the first production levels are established. 

        There has already been an offer from a local restaurant to purchase the chemical free, healthy produce but Harris also hopes to work with subscribers wanting to take home lettuce, herbs, eggs and vegetables every week. He hopes to also encourage others to join in local, year-round food production.
        Your chance to see Sunset Farms is at 2 pm on October 5. Signs will help lead you to the farm on South Hill Road. The open house will offer tours at 3 and 5 pm and a lettuce/spinach taste testing. Senator Cathy Young will visit the facility at 3 pm. Join Sunset Farms on Facebook for emerging details.