After three snow storms in as many weeks, deep snow is covering the ground everywhere in Maine and planting season seems impossibly far away.
But inside the greenhouses at the McKay Farm & Research Station in rural Thorndike, the air smells of potting soil and summer, and the vibrant green of tiny onion and other vegetable and flower seedlings is a hopeful harbinger of what’s to come. On a quiet, sunny Tuesday afternoon, just a couple of people were working, watering or planting seeds, but on the long tables that stretch out to the end of the greenhouse, enough photosynthetic activity is happening to power a region’s worth of small farms. That’s because farmers, gardeners and others can rent space in the heated greenhouses to start their seedlings, and this year as many as 30 farms will do just that.
“It started out small and has grown rapidly, by leaps and bounds,” Jennifer deHart, the chief sustainability officer at Unity College, said this week. “We seem to have tapped into a void. It seems like there’s quite a demand.”
The complex of five greenhouses has been operating in Thorndike since about 1980, according to Chris Bond, the manager of the farm and research station. It was most recently the home of Half Moon Gardens, which grew seedlings and more in the 32,000 square feet of greenhouse space. But when owners Isabel McKay and Rick Thompson closed their business in 2012, they eventually decided to donate the 20-acre complex to Unity College, a gift that was valued at $1.2 million. These days, the college uses it to grow greens and produce, to offer classes, workshops and special events and to provide students with a living laboratory to learn agriculture, business and other skills. For the past three years, it’s also offered rental space for growers to start their seedlings.
Tables are about 90 square feet and hold about 60 standard-size flats. They rent for $155 per month or $93 per month for half a table. There is still space available.
“Most of them like the idea that they can take a day off,” Bond said of the farmers and gardeners who rent table space there.
One of those growers is Khris Hogg, the program manager for area food bank farm Veggies For All, which has rented table space from the McKay greenhouses this spring for the first time to start onions, leeks and some peppers.
“We’re taking advantage of the opportunity and convenience,” Hogg said. “And it’s fun to be around other growers. This is something I feel a lot of us generally do on our own, and it’s nice to have the chance to learn while walking down the aisle here.”
So far, all of the seedlings are located in a 6,000 square foot greenhouse that is heated at night and on cloudy days with propane. On clear days, like Tuesday, it doesn’t need additional heat at all — the solar gain alone heats the greenhouse enough to require ventilation. The temperature fluctuates, Bond said, but never gets below 55 degrees Fahrenheit at night.
“It can easily get up to 95 degrees mid-morning,” he said. “We ventilate to prevent it from being 120 degrees.”
Another greenhouse at the complex is heated with a huge wood pellet furnace, which the college installed after receiving help from the Sandy River Charitable Foundation. Altogether, the furnace cost $80,000, Bond said, and it was first used last spring. The fact that the furnace uses renewable energy was alluring to Unity College, which describes itself as “America’s Environmental College.” Also appealing is the fact that having one large heated greenhouse complex is more energy efficient than 30 different farms building and heating their own small greenhouses.
“It’s a service and it’s doing good for our climate,” deHart said.
Consolidating the seedlings makes sense from an energy conservation standpoint. But what if there’s a problem, such as a power outage or an outbreak of pests or of fungal disease? Not to worry, Bond said. There’s a generator in case of outages, and so far creativity and good management has kept potential plant problems in check. Last May one renter did have an isolated pest outbreak, and greenhouse staff released ladybugs to eat the unwanted invaders and also put out sticky trap cards to keep them at bay.
“It did the job,” Bond said.
Unity College President Dr. Melik Peter Khoury said that making greenhouse space available to local farmers and growers fits in well with the college’s mission.
“We’ve talked for a long time about Maine being our classroom,” he said. “It’s important for us to give back. Whatever community we’re in, we want to be part of it. It’s really a service. It really blends this idea of education, service and community.”
For more information about the McKay Farm and Research Station, call 509-7180.
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