Posted April 20, 2004: It was a pilgrimage
of sorts, a quest for truth and knowledge—what the dictionary
calls “facts or ideas acquired by study, investigation,
observation, or experience”—rather than a scholarly
recitation of mere book learning.
Some 35 eager students,
each paying up to $175, traveled in March to rural Pennsylvania—from
as far away as California, Colorado and Quebec—to learn
the finer points of passive solar greenhouse design, construction
and operation from Steve Moore. They affectionately refer
to the 53-year-old Moore as the “Gandhi of Greenhouses”
because he has successfully demystified the often bewildering
high-tech world of greenhouses, reducing growing under cover
to its biological basics while completely eliminating both
chemical inputs and fossil fuels.
Moore’s two-day workshop did not disappoint them.
Question: “Can I make
a living at this? How much money can I make?”
Answer: “It is more
than possible to earn a livelihood,” says Moore, who
has been farming on his own for 30 years, the last 15 with
unheated, passive solar greenhouses.
“It’s amazing what you can accomplish. It is
a good income,” says Moore, citing the $50,000 a year
being grossed by Pete Johnson, a young farmer in northern
Vermont. (That was a few years ago. Johnson continues to
do better each year. After farming part of his parents’
place, he is now buying a farm of his own and putting several
acres under cover. Look for details on Johnson’s farm
on NewFarm.org later this year.) ”But if you’re
interested in making a lot of money—quick,”
Moore cautions, “go into insurance or something.”
Question: “How many
customers does it take to be economically viable?”
Answer: “Start with
five, 10 or 15 customers,” Moore advises those interested
in selling shares of their harvest through a Community Supported
Agriculture program. “Go slow.”
First, he advises, collect all of the tools you will need,
perfect your growing systems and structures, build your
soil, and hone your marketing skills.
“Plan ahead. Set goals. Try to be practical and realistic.
Grow what you grow best for your markets. Marketing is everything.
When you hit 50 customers, quit your job. And set 100 customers
as your goal for next year. One greenhouse, well managed,
can feed 100 shares from early March through Christmas.”
Question: “Why do
you only grow head lettuce and not salad mix?
Answer: “Because it’s
good money with less labor,” Moore replies.
“They’re begging for organic lettuces locally.”
And so it goes, hour after hour--including during breaks
and over lunch—for two full days as Moore tries to quench
his students’ thirst for knowledge.
Moore’s next greenhouse workshop is scheduled for September
24-25 and it’s almost full. Early registration is $175
per person, single, or $160 per person for two or more people
from the same family or farm. Free on-site dormitory space
is limited. Another round of workshops will be held next winter.
Moore is also working on a website and a manual on how to
design, build and operate a passive-solar greenhouse year-round.
(Keep checking NewFarm.org for details.)
so it goes, hour after hour--including during breaks and
over lunch—for two full days as Moore tries to quench
his students’ thirst for knowledge.
Question: “What crops
don’t pay in a greenhouse?”
broccoli, Brussels sprouts and potatoes.”
Question: “What about
Answer: “Mobile greenhouses
never really worked for us.”
What has worked better than anything for Moore is a serious
commitment to soil improvement. He tells the story of how
the contractor who built the 30- by 96-foot gothic arch greenhouse
for Moore at Wilson College a few years ago thought he was
doing the farmer a big favor. After perfectly leveling the
greenhouse site, the contractor brought in a rolling vibrator,
a mechanical compactor, and tamped the disturbed soil solid.
“It was a road, as flat and almost as hard as asphalt,”
Moore recalls. “But it was perfect, as far as the contractor
figured. He didn’t know I was planning to grow in the
ground and not on benches.”
The soil was so hard it took Moore three whacks with a pick
just to break loose a clod of clay. Starting that November,
Moore added compost, tilled the clods and kept adding more
compost. He laid out permanent beds and pathways and began
planting. By March, he was harvesting his first vegetables.
After four years, organic matter in his soil measured 14.69
At his new location near York, PA, Moore used a tractor-drawn
chisel plow to eliminate compaction from construction. He
double digs greenhouse beds, using a 30-inch wide U-bar or
“broadfork” with nine 20-inch tines, until reaching
optimal soil structure to a depth of two feet. “The
U-bar cuts the time in half,” Moore says. “It
takes me 30 minutes to do a 5- by 20-foot bed.” To keep
from compacting the beds with his feet he stands on a 2- by
5-foot digging board. His soil is now so friable that Moore
works it up before each planting with only a scuffle hoe,
a thatch rake…or his bare hands. (He never uses a tiller
inside his greenhouses.)
“There is no substitute for your own compost,”
Moore says. “If you can’t make your own, mushroom
compost is a pretty good way to jump start your farm.”
Contrary to popular opinion, Moore believes you can have too
much compost. That’s especially true if it contains
animal manure, which can cause salt buildup in the soil. Moore
has eliminated animal manure from compost used in the greenhouses
(though he still uses some manure in the fields. He checks
his soil regularly with an EC (electrical conductivity) meter
to guard against salt buildup.
Question: “How do
you cover a greenhouse with plastic?”
Answer: “Work quickly.
And use your friends, at least a couple of them. Six people
are even better,” Moore advises. You want one person
on each corner, while two others unroll the plastic along
the top, center ridge of the greenhouse frame.
Before getting out the plastic, he advises, make sure all
of your fasteners are in place so that the plastic can be
secured as it is spread. A variety of fasteners—everything
from used drip tape and staples to fancy, interlocking metal
extrusions—can be used. Moore favors “wiggle wire”
(brand names Wire-Lock and ZigZag wire). It is soft, pre-bent
spring wire that locks up to three layers of plastic into
aluminum channels bolted to wooden framing or metal greenhouse
bows. (Moore buys his wiggle wire and many other items from
Nolt’s Produce Supplies, 152 N. Hershey Ave., Leola,
PA 17540; 717-656-9764.)
Peak height of a 30- by 96-foot gothic-arch greenhouse is
about 12 feet, so you’ll need at least one stepladder
that tall, Moore says, offering that two ladders is preferable,
since a 50- by 100-foot roll of 6-mil greenhouse plastic weighs
about 150 pounds. (Using a pair of ladders, two people can
easily carry the roll to the peak.) For easier handling, Moore
suggests inserting a pipe through the middle of the heavy
cardboard tube holding the plastic.
Next, Moore says, place the middle of the roll on the ridge
pole, the purlin or brace that runs down the peak. Be sure,
he adds, to leave a 2-foot overhang on the outside edge; that
will give your plastic-handlers something easy to hang onto
and plenty of plastic for battening down the edges.
When Moore’s son, Ben, is helping him, they simply
walk down the lower purlins, unrolling and unfolding the plastic
as they go. The plastic is specially folded or “gusseted”
in a C-fold to cascade down each side from the middle. Father
and son work two to three bows ahead of the plastic-handlers
on the ground, who stretch and smooth the plastic as it unfurls.
“If your roll is dead center, no adjustment is needed,”
Moore says. Once the sheet of plastic is unrolled and spread,
it is “tacked” at the corners and in the middle
with short sections of wiggle wire.
more popular than ever. I raise it year round,
and a lot of it. It provides three to four cuttings.”
“It’s the hero of our winter greenhouse.”
Black bell, Imperial, Orient Express.
“This is the only one to grow. It’s
in a class by itself.”
Fedco, a chard that’s a sleeper.
Gold. Two rows per bed on north side, caged and
covered on cool nights. Sun Gold doesn’t
crack as much in greenhouse. Plants March-April,
harvests through Thanksgiving.
Gourmet (orange) Labrador (yellow). “The
earliest we ever lost our peppers was Thanksgiving.
The latest was the first full week of January.”
Premium price for Thanksgiving.
“If you’re putting on a double layer, you do
it the same way, only it gives you more of a thrill, because
you have a layer of plastic under your feet as you walk down
the purlins,” says Moore. “In two or three hours,
you’re through and your friends can go home. How long
it takes depends on who I have for help.”
That technique definitely is not for the faint of heart or
anyone with a fear of heights. So, if walking 96 feet—about
nine feet above the ground—on a thin, plastic-covered
pipe is not your idea of a good time, relax. There is another
way, one that is definitely safer and, some might say, a little
Count Moore’s wife, Carol, among those who refuses
to venture onto the tall monkey bars of the greenhouse frame.
When Carol helps her husband cover a frame, they do it by
tying a long rope to each end of the pipe through the roll
of plastic. Then, from the safety of the ground, they pull
the roll the length of the frame, unrolling the plastic as
“It’s best to install plastic in summer,”
adds Moore. “First, warm your plastic in the sun. After
the frame is covered and the plastic begins to cool, it contracts
and gets tighter.”
Moore irrigates everything in his greenhouses with drip tape,
using four or five tapes per bed. “That means a lot
of fittings, but it delivers a lot of water. Adding a cheap
($10) mechanical timer makes it reasonably automated, which
leaves time for a full-time job,” he adds for a laugh.
“There is no substitute for looking at the ground,”
Moore says. But he doesn’t just look at the soil surface.
A couple of times each week, Moore uses a metal soil probe
to pull soil cores from as deep as 24 inches below the surface.
“It looks wet on the surface, but when I probe down
below it is sometimes dry as can be.”
It’s all part of Moore’s commitment to producing
food for maximum flavor, freshness and nutrition. He farms
a total of 30 acres owned by Sonnewald Natural Foods, which
is something of an intentional community dedicated to personal
and planetary health. Sonnewald, which has been organic since
1946, bills itself as perhaps the oldest existing organic
farm and natural food store in Pennsylvania. Its motto is:
“Good health comes from the farm ... not the pharmacy.”
Moore’s greenhouses are only about 100 yards from the
store, a far cry from the 1,500 miles that most Americans’
food travels from farm to table.
“We, as farmers, are the primary health care practitioners
to the nation,” Moore opines. “The store is a
Mecca for health information. It lets us reach more people
quicker than we could do on our own farm.”