Nope, this blog post’s not about questioning my personal energy level–though those questions have certainly crossed my mind of late. Life continues to be chock-full. The rush of preparing for market has now translated into a new (and busy) weekly harvest and market schedule. We’re really excited about the chance to vend at the Harrisonburg Farmer’s Market, but we’re also adjusting to this new addition to our plates. Twice a week market means twice a week harvest and prep days, which also means that after we’ve attempted to address the other planting and weeding and mowing demands of the garden, there’s not time for much else. Including the still-far-from-finished-barn. I’m most of the time at peace with our dwindling barn time, although I will say that I never thought a few hours of painting walls could make me so happy.
And actually, after recovering from the first harvest/prep and market day (there are always so many kinks to work out for first time at a market), we settled into what felt like a pretty good rhythm this past week. It helped that some dear out-of-town friends were around, and encouraged us both with their volunteer labor and the excuse they gave us to do a bit more ‘playing.’ Our orchard is breathing a lot easier after some MUCH needed weeding from Jeff, and Anabel is still reveling in all the time she got to spend in various creeks this past week with her new-favorite friends.
All that to say, the personal energy levels are relatively good. What this farmer’s market has brought on, however, are some renewed questions about the energy that powers our personal lives and market garden business.
We’re setting up the barn for solar power, and have a small array of panels we purchased from Backwoods Solar. We’ve got all the accompanying batteries and parts we need to install and, in theory, will do so before we move in. When I say small array, I mean SMALL. We purchased 3 305W panels, with the hopes of producing enough energy for about 2200 watt hours of energy per day. Which isn’t very much. We wanted to keep it small and use less energy both to cut our costs, and to force us to be, shall we say, more ‘creative’ in how we power our lives. A wood cookstove, composting toilet, wood or solar-heated water, DC-powered lights and appliances, a super-small (and also DC powered) fridge, and a number of other things will help to keep our energy use and energy demands low.
As we planned our solar set-up, we thought a lot about our personal energy use, but we never really let ourselves think about the farm/market garden business side of things. We grow vegetables. In particular, we grow salad greens. Which should really be refrigerated if they’re going to retain their quality for our customers. And, as it turns out, refrigeration takes a lot of energy.
When we farmed and ran a CSA in Pennsylvania, we set up a cold room on my parent’s farm and installed a CoolBot. Many a farmer of our type has been saved by the CoolBot. I don’t know the precise technology/mechanics of how it works, but the basic idea is that a small electronic device “tricks” an air conditioner to run below 60 degrees, allowing you to cool an insulated space to somewhere in the high 30s-low 40s. It’s a heck of a lot cheaper than a walk-in fridge.
Cheap it may be but, as you can imagine, an almost constantly running air conditioner unit is not super energy efficient. We brought our CoolBot and accompanying ac unit down from PA, but I was hoping not to use it. I knew we wouldn’t be able to power it with the amount of solar panels we were investing in, and I also knew we wouldn’t be able to afford (at least right now) the required number of solar panels needed to run the CoolBot. So, right up to market, I sort of thought we would just wing it and figure something out to keep our veggies relatively cool and crisp.
Tim and I had a half-hearted, vague conversation about making time to put in our root cellar and trying to keep that space at right around 50. Yeah, right. Like we’ve got a lot of time for root cellar construction these days. Also, we both know that lettuce is not all that happy at 50 degrees.
So then we had another half-hearted, vague conversation about just insulating a small section of his parent’s basement and packing our harvest bins in that space with a bunch of frozen ice jugs. I guess we thought we could make a lot of frozen ice jugs.
Well, in typical Tim-and-Krista style, we decided after these super-productive conversations, and ONE DAY before harvesting for our first market, to install the CoolBot in his parent’s basement (have I mentioned how gracious and laid-back they are?). Tim framed out a small room in the corner of the basement, installed some used insulative wall board we had lying around, and then rigged up the ac unit and CoolBot hardware. After a day’s labor–presto!–we had a cold room to keep our veggies fresh.
BUT we’re using a lot of non-renewable energy to do it, which I don’t feel great about. Especially when we’re trying to be so intentional and mindful in how we’re powering our personal lives, I feel sort of hypocritical about using this energy-hog of a tool for our business.
Right now, it’s a compromise that I feel like we have to make. And a compromise that is, perhaps, a good reminder of how rare we actually manage to be ‘purists’ in any of our commitments or convictions. What feels important to me is to not let these sorts of compromises totally take the wind of my sails and just give up. When faced with overwhelmingly big-picture realities like non-renewable resources and climate change, I think a lot of us tend towards a sub-conscious defeatism. We know we can’t solve the whole puzzle on our own, so we tend to think that anything we do individually doesn’t really make a difference. Or we think that if we can’t manage to totally change our lifestyle and energy consumption habits, we might as well not bother to try and change even small parts of it. I get caught into that kind of attitude all the time. But it’s silly. Even if I can’t power our CoolBot via sun or wind or water, it’s still good and meaningful and important that I work towards using sustainable energy sources in other areas of my life. I can also be mindful of how I use the non-renewable energy that I still need to depend on. In our former business, we always got sucked into holding over our excess produce in the CoolBot in the hopes of selling it somewhere else. But more often than not, it ended up in the compost anyways. So this season we’re intentionally un-plugging the CoolBot as soon as we take our produce to market or to whatever restaurant we’re selling to. We try to harvest what we need, and eat or give away or compost whatever we bring home.
Someday, I hope to install another solar array that can keep that CoolBot cool. In the meantime, I’ll keep living in the tension, recognize the compromises we’re making, and striving towards new forms of sustainable work and living.