by Sabine Rhyne
Long Wind Farm is an unusual farm. Set on a small number of acres just off Route 5 in Thetford, VT, all of the activities occur in a set of greenhouses and a packing building, each very focused on producing the best organic tomato possible, for the longest season possible, using the least amount of energy possible.
This is a tall order. But Dave Chapman and his partners have been fixated on these goals for a long time. Although the plan does not include much growth beyond the current physical capacity, growing their efficiency in both production and energy use continue to challenge them.
This year, we might have expected that tomatoes grown in a controlled environment provided by the latest greenhouse technology would have been blessedly immune from the near-monsoon weather conditions.
Though the plants were not drowning, the low-light conditions have been difficult, so production has been about 15% off of expectations. Still, things are beginning to hum there in the packing shed.
Long Wind’s production goes like this: organic beefsteak tomato seed is planted in the fall, grafted onto disease-resistant root stock in December, and subsequently moved into the production area to begin producing for market in March. Staffing levels range from 15 to 30 people, with the peak employed from March to December. Marketer Eric Muther showed us around the packing shed and storage cooler, joined by Jim Gardner, the operations director. Jim mentioned that Long Wind Farm has an extremely high success rate for their grafting process, an important part of their model.
The push for efficiency and energy savings has translated into a new diffuse-glass greenhouse, installed this year, that replaces three plastic-hoop houses. This allows for two to three percent more light for the plants, and is further enhanced by a dehumidification system that recirculates the hot air while removing the humidity in a more closed system. (Visitors to this relatively closed system are asked to don suits to minimize the pathogen transfer into the greenhouses.) The next step is an energy-source change, which is still being decided. A photovoltaic system for both the electricity and hot water for the business is being debated, with a ground source heat pump option. This project is being worked out with a local alternative energy provider that would use the installation as a demonstration. This would further reduce energy use beyond the 50% savings since 2003.
For all of its admirable energy-efficiency progress, Long Wind Farm is fairly removed from its fans. Although a few local customers depend on the retail offerings in the packing shed, Long Wind is primarily known through its retailers like the Brattleboro Food Co-op. This year, they began a mail-order CSA, very small-scale, with eight-packs of tomatoes available to customers in metropolitan areas not served by co-ops or other natural food stores. Dave mused on the difficulties encountered when items become viewed as commodities as opposed to values-based products. When a large natural retail chain decided to purchase large-scale Mexican organic tomatoes instead of Long Wind Farm’s organic Vermont beefsteak tomatoes, the customers who value local, sustainable businesses lost out. So, once again, we are reminded of the importance of the whole picture of our local producers, and some of the reasons that we focus on their work: good products, mindfully produced, employing local folks, and being driven a relatively short distance to their consumers. It all makes sense to us.
Visit the Co-op on Friday, August 9 from 11am-1pm, meet the folks from Long Wind Farm, and sample some tasty tomatos!