Exploring the question of fuel use by greenhouses

A special treat, greenies: Guest writer Melissa Batchelor Warnke on the question of whether local food grown in greenhouses is as sustainable as what comes from the open fields. Take it away, Melissa…

In the past four or five years, as the local food movement has exploded across Albemarle and Charlottesvillians have flocked to farmers markets and signed up for CSAs, an unspoken question has been on the minds of many: how have such delicate microgreens and precious, thin-skinned tomatoes been produced in the notoriously uneven Virginia spring? Is it a miracle or something altogether more suspicious?

The answer, ultimately, is neither; many of the most sensitive fruits and vegetables are, in fact, grown in local greenhouses—some plants living their whole lives there, while others spend only their early days inside before being transplanted out into the wild world.

The two most compelling anti-greenhouse arguments are that these warm spots encourage local farmers to grow out of season, obscuring the very idea of a Virginia food culture, and that they often require fossil fuels for heat. While these problems are certainly rife in the overgrown, low-wage-labor-driven commercial greenhouses of Florida and Spain, an Albemarle County greenhouse is truly a horse of a different color.

Richard Bean of Double H Farm only uses his small (48’x20′) greenhouse to get seedlings off to an early start, then transfers them outside for the rest of their adult lives. For Double H, the process of farming is all about reuse: After they plant arugula in an unheated hoophouse, they will replant with tomatoes and cucumbers, then raise a flock of young chickens in it in the fall, which will in turn lay the manure for the next round of arugula.

Using this method, where every crop supports another, they grow nearly 80 crops. Bags of water inside the greenhouse onto hold the sun’s warmth, and Bean says that utilizing fossil fuels to heat his plants is not an option, largely because of the steep price: “We’re trying to be environmentally sensitive, but we’ve got to pay our bills first.”

Several local farms, however, do use propane to heat their greenhouses and grow produce inside from beginning to end. Wendy Harrison, co-owner of The Farm at Red Hill, says that everything grown in her greenhouse can be grown outdoors in Virginia, but that the specific varieties she prefers—tomatoes that prefer low light, sweet and thin English cucumbers—are perhaps too delicate for Virginia weather’s erratic mood swings.

Harrison admits that living with purely seasonal food (a la Barbara Kingsolver’s romantic local-food romp, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle) can be a serious drag, recalling the years she lived in Moscow where almost all food was local (read: pickled), and people waited in lines around the block for a measly banana. However, the argument for eating local Virginia food, greenhouse-grown or direct-seeded, in her view, always comes down to taste. “That tomato from Mexico may only cost 70 cents…but when you go to eat it, it has no taste because it was picked green and rock hard.”

Tomas Rahal, the head chef at Mas, is unconcerned by the rise of greenhouse growing among local farmers, suggesting that the fossil fuel use in massive, conventional food greenhouses all but wipes local greenhouses’ footprint off the map. He admires urban farmers’ spunk and creativity, such as those putting greenhouses on barges on the Hudson or plunking them the middle of Portland, and even considered powering his own greenhouse from the residual heat of Mas’ brick oven (no room due to new parking lot spaces).

Rahal, like many Charlottesville restaurateurs, appreciates both the seasonality of Virginia food and the restraint of Albemarle local farmers, saying, “I really celebrate the arrival of fresh strawberries and tomatoes and I’m not bothered by the fact that I can’t get them in the middle of winter.”

What are your thoughts, readers? Are greenhouses cukes OK with you?

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