Solar Greenhouses: A Method of Survival for Small Farmers

By the Staff of the Graham Center

Vol. 1, No. 6, 1979, pp. 10-12

Today, the American small farmer is an endangered species. As control of land and the farm economy has concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, one of the biggest migrations in human history has occurred during the past 40 years as millions of people have moved into urban areas. In 1977, American farms vanished at the rate of 500 a week. In the South, the nation's fastest growing area, change in rural patterns are especially dramatic. Estimates project that Black-owned land in the rural South is disappearing at the rate of 6000 acres per week. At the present rate of attrition, the Black Southern farmer may well be extinct by 1990.

Preserving the small farm in this country will require significant changes in our present political and economic systems. Through a reliance upon non-renewable fuels and increasingly complex technology, U.S. agriculture has become agribusiness. One movement towards change has been the development of low-cost, energy-efficient methods and new skills appropriate to the background and resources of small farmers.

In support of this development, the Frank Porter Graham Center, a 400-acre demonstration farm and training center located in Anson County, North Carolina, is sponsoring a series of solar greenhouse construction workshops. These workshops will introduce solar-heating techniques, teach building skills, and begin to develop a local market for greenhouse construction. The Graham Center is conducting the greenhouse workshops with funds from the National Association of Farmworkers Organizations (NAFO) and the consultation and on-site assistance of the Solar Greenhouse/ Employment Project.

The Graham Center was established in 1972


Page 11

as a project of the National Sharecropper's Fund. At present II farmers from Anson County and surrounding areas are enrolled in the Graham Center's Small Farm Development Program, which offers technical and practical training for small-scale limited resource farmers. The greenhouse workshops are a component of this demonstration program which includes projects such as a 10sow pasture operation, 30-acre crop rotation system, large-scale composting, and dairy goat demonstration.

The Graham Center believes that solar-heated greenhouses can help cut the rising costs of food and energy. Virgil Chance, the Center's farm supervisor, says, "With a solar greenhouse, you can grow vegetables in the wintertime and start planting earlier in the spring. You can also heat your house with it. You can grow potted plants and flowers, either for the family or for making money."

Another of the workshops' primary objectives is to train a limited number of farmers in greenhouse design and construction techniques. The Solar Greenhouse/ Employment Project envisions small farmers using these skills to create off-season employment opportunities for themselves.

Graham Center and the Solar Greenhouse Employment Project encouraged residents of Wadesboro, Charlotte, and other nearby communities to participate in the workshops. The first session was held during the last week of January. Using new materials, participants built an II X 18 greenhouse directly onto the southside of the Graham Center's main building. The total cost of the pro-


Page 12

ject was $850, and the greenhouse now generates a substantial part of the main building's wintertime heating supply.

Despite unusually cold and wet January weather, 45 people - including 17 local farmers attended the first workshop. Trainees were involved with all aspects of construction - pouring the foundation, framing, glazing, insulating, sealing, hanging and finishing drywall and painting. Instruction was also given in greenhouse design, cost estimating, and in specifying and collecting materials.

The second workshop, held in early February, was designed to demonstrate low-cost construction methods relevant to local needs and available resources. This greenhouse was built onto the southside of a Graham Center double-wide mobile home at a cost of $400. As in the rest of the rural South, trailors comprise an increasingly high percentage of single-family residences in Anson County. The supplemental heat provided by a solar greenhouse has been proven to lower the high cost of heating traitors by 25-40 percent.

The second greenhouse was built by local farmers and Graham Center staff with technical assistance from members of the Solar Greenhouse Employment Project. Costs were held to a minimum by using recycled building materials. The building crew salvaged metal roofing and lumber from an abandoned tenant cabin on the Graham Center's property. Bricks, railroad ties, and other used materials were also collected around the farm and county.

In addition to their on-job teaching, Solar Greenhouse/ Employment Project conducted a series of evening classes. They covered the concept of solar energy as an alternative heating source, financing and maintaining the greenhouse, and the different uses of the structure in growing vegetables, ornamental plants, and herbs.

Methods of greenhouse composting and pest control were also discussed. The classes were held as part of the Graham Center's regular twice-a-week curriculum for local farming families. All participants received building plans and detailed instructions following both workshops.

The third solar greenhouse, scheduled for construction in early March, will be sited next to a local farmer's home and built of salvaged materials. Seven Anson County families (and 21 other participants in the first two greenhouse workshops) have expressed interest in adding on a greenhouse. "Around here we usually start to sow seeds on Good Friday. If I had a greenhouse we could set out with transplants already five or six inches tall," says Alex Waring, a local farmer and member of the Graham Center staff.

The third project will be planned and built by local farmers who have been involved in the previous two. The Graham Center hopes to establish a revolving loan fund which will enable members of the Small Farm Development Program to borrow interest-free "seed" money for greenhouse construction. North Carolina state tax laws already allow a 25 percent credit for investments in energy-saving home improvements.

The combination of financial incentives, newly-learned skills, and cooperative working arrangements applied to this model of accessible, low-cost technology have made solar greenhouses one modest, but realistic way that people in this community can help themselves survive as small farmers in the rural South.

This article was prepared by the staff of the Graham Center.