TT with HD: Shannon Brines
[Ed. note: More information on the hoop house discussed below, plus Dave Sebolt's plans for a 12' x 12' simple greenhouse, at the Brines Farm website.]
HD: Well, let's climb aboard.
HD: Before we actually get to tottering back and forth, I like to get the picture out of the way. [Ed. note: photography ensues.] Alright. Well, welcome to the teeter totter!
SB: Thanks! Fun to be here!
HD: Now, let's see if we can actually get some tottering action going. Wow, your feet are leaving the ground, you're good at this! So, I know you have this hoop house out at the farm, but you can't seriously be growing anything at this point, can you, right? With all the super-cold weather we've had in the last three or four weeks?
SB: Well, yeah, I try to be careful about actually using the word, 'growing'. Most people, it ends up blurring when they relay the story on to other people and stuff like that. But what I'm going for is actually four-season harvesting--so, harvesting year round. A month like this, it's just like a big refrigerator, really. I just go in there and cut for the market.
HD: So there's live plants ...
SB: ... yes ...
HD: ... but not necessarily seeds growing into plants.
SB: Yeah, so it's sort of a fine line. But I can pretty much grow things though nine, ten months out of the year. The idea for the winter harvest is, I plant things in the fall and they pretty much grow--everything's sort of baby greens, baby winter salad mixes, baby lettuces--so everything grows baby or bigger size by, say, Thanksgiving. And then December, January are usually not really growth months ...
HD: ... they just sort of maintain?
HD: But you do have to do something or other to keep them alive, right?
SB: Well, we just gotta be careful. I mean if it's going to be cloudy--like days like this--I keep them bundled up. There's a floating row cover that goes over the plants about a foot or two off the ground.
HD: And what is that made of exactly?
SB: It's actually synthetic. I'm sort of an all-natural guy, so it's funny you mention it. I'm always trying to think of things that I could use other than the plastic film that covers the greenhouse itself, and this floating row cover that covers the plants. But it's sort of just like a synthetic polyester woven fabric ...
HD: ... and you just unroll it on top of the plants?
SB: Yeah, I just kind of lay it out over the plants themselves and I suspend it with some nine- or twelve-gauge wire curved into little wickets.
HD: So that's the 'floating' part.
HD: And the wickets, they stay in place? You don't have to re-engineer the wickets every time you cover them up?
SB: Mmm, I pull them out for the summer, but yeah for the winter they're pretty much just delineating the rows. When things are planted you can't really see them when they haven't germinated yet, but it lets you know where the row is, and it keeps the fabric up. It breathes and it lets in about 85 percent of the light, so those are the things I'm looking for. A lot of times I will just leave that on. If it's going to be really sunny, it'd be nice to roll it back and let the sun warm up the ground. Yeah, mostly just maintenance.
HD: So inside the hoop house, this stuff is planted directly in the ground, or is it on tiers, and shelves and things?
SB: Again, because my main interest is the winter harvest, I just direct seed it right into the ground. So the idea there is to keep the plants close to the ground. The ground is probably the warmest level. The whole idea is to keep the soil temperature kind of up there. So keep it close to the ground, and then the row cover's over the top of that, so that's where the best microclimate is. I like to tell people it's pretty much like the climate of Tennessee at the ground level right there. And then actually above the floating row cover it's like southern Ohio, and outside the greenhouse, we have this!
HD: Okay, so pure Michigan.
HD: Now, what are the dimensions of that hoop house?
SB: It's about 30 feet by 100 feet--slightly under a hundred feet long.
HD: Okay, and the plans for the smaller house that Dave Sebolt--is that his name?
HD: That he drew up for a portable or non-permanent greenhouse you could build yourself, that's a 12 by 12 [feet]. So I was wondering if there's a minimum dimension? I mean, there has to be a certain amount of thermal mass, right?
HD: What's the smallest square footage you could go for and still manage to get the benefits of having this enclosed greenhouse kind of space?
SB: That's a good question. And displays part of why I'm interested in this kind of stuff. I think there's a lot of room for research or trying to figure these things out. I'm not sure anyone exactly knows. And of course it depends a little bit on what kind of season you're going to get, or what kind of winter you get. We just had 23 days well below freezing, so with a 12 by 12 you would have probably frozen solid through easily.
HD: Because I was thinking, if I were going to attempt something like that, I think actually the best place would be out in front of the house. All the houses along the street have this standard flower-bed type plot, and I think it's maybe 5 by 10 [feet]--that's about the biggest structure you could get in there. And it's not the kind of thing you could walk in--I was just thinking more of a set of knee-high hoops that you could pull some plastic over.
SB: You could certainly do that. Or build sort of like a frame, a cold frame type deal, too. But what I've been telling people is to just give it a try. I can tell you when I looked into building mine, I really didn't want to go any smaller than 30 feet by 48 feet. That's just because of this perimeter-to-area ratio, and you can get the cold creeping in from the edges. So I just wanted to have enough volume and thermal mass of the heated ground in there to make it worthwhile. It's much smaller dimensions for cold frames and the Dave Sebolt 12 by 12 design or even smaller. I mean, you could try things like certain types of turnips, or the things that people are used to seeing in their gardens coming back really early on in the spring. And then I have some other things--like of this /mosh/ or /mosh-ay/ [mache], depending on people pronounce it, vits like that or claytonia. There's a few other types of things you can certainly give a try in a structure that's not going to keep as much heat as mine.
HD: So there's no electric heaters in the hoop house. Do you keep barrels of water or any thing else to store ... ?
SB: ... I do have one barrel of water in there. The soil's really dark. I'd like to get some more heavy stone in some of the aisle-ways, to be some more thermal mass. There's a lot of things you could try that are on the list to think about trying. But right now, mine is sort of this standard hoop house structure, which is meant to be designated as a temporary agricultural structure. So there's no permitting required--well, as long as you're in an area that has the right zoning--but you just kind of throw it up there and ...
HD: ... let it grow ...
SB: ... yeah, it works. It works. Of course, with the last 23 days of cold weather, it would have been nice to have had a little more thermal mass. I've debated about having emergency backup. This past 23 days, we had some crop loss, for sure, just because it was really frigid at night. It's the overnight lows that kind of make it difficult.
HD: So is it almost maple sugaring season? On your website you mention that on the farm you guys tap the maple trees.
SB: Yeah, we actually haven't done that in a few years. Well, it should be closing in on that. It was a little bit odd, though, with the January so warm, we had like 50 degrees. So I mean the trees ultimately decide, I guess. But no, we're certainly closing in, in about another month.
HD: But you're not going to do that this year?
SB: I'm not going to do it! [laugh] I've got a lot of things to do. I'm heading out actually right after this to seed a little bit of lettuce real quick this morning.
HD: Speaking of seeds, is your operation totally self-sustaining, or do you just go some place and buy the seeds?
SB: I have saved some seeds, but basically because of time constraints--I'm doing a day job as well--I buy a lot of seeds. I buy a lot of them, actually, from Johnny's Seed Catalog. It's out of Maine, so it's not necessarily super-close. But I try to bulk my orders to cut down on the shipping. They've catered really well to this sort of four-season harvesting, the buying of these cold-hardy plants, particularly for people in the north to test out. So it's been a good catalog, I like them. They also are non-GMO, ...
HD: ... GMO, meaning?
SB: Genetically modified organisms. So they have a whole mission statement lined out, that really respects people who think about sustainable agriculture and particularly the smaller farm-to-market type operations.
HD: Have you noticed any piqued interest in locally-grown stuff in general in light of some of the national food stories we've heard recently? Like salmonella in peanut butter and E. coli on spinach leaves, that sort of thing?
SB: Yeah, peanut butter is the latest one, huh? I hadn't even heard of that until yesterday. I was like, Oh, boy! I usually just buy some of those crushed peanuts over by the Arbor Farms Market--you know where they crush them right there for you. I think so. But you know the kind of people I interface with at the market are probably already interested.
HD: Right--they're already in a choir you'd be preaching to.
SB: Yeah, but when I meet other people at social gatherings, I find that they are starting to get a little more in tune, they're thinking about it. And I think there's just an overall awareness that there might be something better out there than the food you get at your normal generic restaurants and whatnot.
HD: I was noticing yesterday when my wife brought home some groceries there was a gallon of orange juice, and the price sticker was seven dollars and something. And I thought, honest to god, Well somebody mis-priced this but I'm sure it scanned correctly. And I asked her if this was really the right price and she said, Yeah, that's just how much it costs now. I don't know if it was Florida, or California, or both, that had the frozen crop. But if you think about orange juice, where else are you going to get oranges, if you live in Michigan? And you might say, Well, you don't have to have oranges. But there's the Vitamin C thing. So if you wanted to go for a purely locally grown produce solution, how would you address the Vitamin C issues here in Michigan? I guess I assume they addressed it in days gone by.
SB: Sure. I mean I'm not necessarily advocating that people ditch it all and go back to eating some bark to prevent scurvy or whatnot, but ...
HD: ... is that what you can do to prevent scurvy?
SB: I think so. [laugh] Isn't that one of those stories of first contact some of the explorers had scurvy and I think some of the native Americans ...
HD: ... fed them some bark??
SB: Yeah, I think so, inside of one of the trees. I should really know this. I can get back to you on that! I think I have it in a book somewhere. [Ed. note: Cf. the appended passage below] But no, I mean, certainly people do this Hundred-Mile Diet or an Eat Local Challenge, or there's been groups around the U.S. and Canada who've tried stuff like that. And that's really cool. I think it really helps get awareness out, if people start doing that for a month or something like that. But I mean, I try to eat local, but I drink orange juice. I like bananas actually, too, and stuff like that. And certainly people need to drink their coffee often. So I think it's like most things in life: looking for a balance. Certainly the more you eat local, the more you can have fresher food, hopefully it will be better for you, and the more you actually will be cutting down on your footprint, too. So yeah, to try to grow oranges in Michigan is like trying to grow tomatoes up here in the winter, too. It's just not really something that should be done! So people should eat seasonally, but, I wouldn't necessarily eliminate certain parts of the diet. I'm sort of an optimist, so I'm hopeful in the grand scheme of things there will be ways for oranges to be somehow shipped up here from Florida. Of course most of the oranges come probably from farther than the U.S. these days.
HD: Oh yeah?
SB: Yeah, I have a tough time looking for 'U.S. only' orange juice and whatnot. I drink a lot of grapefruit juice, because you can find 100 percent Florida grapefruit juice.
HD: Oh, really!
SB: Not to get all nationalistic or anything like that [laugh]!
HD: Well, I mean, it's closer, so you don't have to layer the national aspect onto it if you don't want to, I guess.
SB: No, it's definitely more about the closeness. With food coming in from the other side of the Pacific now and South America, it's the things that are coming in that you can find regionally or locally within the U.S., that sort of bothers me somehow. Certainly, there's always going to be specialty items, and I'm all about ethnic foods and different parts of the world and things like that. So I'm sure there's always going to be things. And that's actually what I'm actually advocating, is going back to having more regional flavor and variety. You know, Michigan is sort of a cold-weather state, so if you were to eat more seasonally, you'd be eating a lot of my greens, I guess, in the winter. But I think that gives kind of a flavor to it that makes it interesting.
HD: One of the links I followed from your website led me to a place where I was reading about the exhortation to 'Eat Food' as opposed to other stuff that one might put in one's mouth and chew up and swallow. So are you familiar with this notion of 'Eat Food' as opposed to stuff you buy at your grocery store?
SB: Yeah. Yeah. And I guess I'm in agreement with it. Although I've been known to eat things other than food.
HD: Like, for example, I think pop tarts would not qualify as food from this perspective. [Ed. note: Here HD is speaking only from his own experience and not implying he's ever seen SB eat a poptart. They met for the first time that morning, and no poptarts were consumed on the tottering premises.]
HD: But pop tarts, you know, they taste really good.
HD: And they're made by Kellogg's, right? Or at least the best ones are made by Kellogg's anyway, and that's a Michigan company, isn't it?
SB: Mmm, there's a different angle you could go at that. Perhaps eventually Kellogg's could trim down on some of that ingredient list, go with things that are a little more wholesome, maybe make a pop tart more like something you could make in your own kitchen. But I still agree with the overall standpoint put forth by 'Eat Food'--just that the more recognizable the ingredient list is, it's probably a good thing. The fewer turns the originally food has taken to get to the end product, it's probably a good thing. Yeah, that kind of stems out of a lot of stuff that Wendell Berry used to write. And Michael Pollan has picked up on that recently in some of his recent articles, too.
HD: Alright, so do you have anything else on your mind? It's starting to flurry at this point sort of ever so slightly.
SB: Hmm. No, those are pretty much the main points. I mean, that's my farming and food hat, but I wear a lot of other hats, too.
HD: What kind of other hats do you wear?
SB: Uh oh. I guess I opened myself up to that! Well, I work at the [U of M] School of Natural Resources and Environment as a researcher. Right now, I primarily help people look at things spatially--mapping things out in various geographies. Some of the stuff we do is actually accessibility to food at a regional or neighborhood level. We have data on people and look at what they actually have access to, that type of thing. That's in partnership with the School of Public Health. But we do all sorts of stuff--land use change ...
HD: Alright, thanks for coming over this morning.
SB: No problem. It was fun!
HD: Yeah, this was great. It's a great way to start off the day actually, a nice cold teeter totter ride.
SB: No, it actually worked out pretty good.
HD: Wakes you up.
SB: I'm going to go plant some lettuce.
Ed. note: Shannon followed up quickly after the ride with the following:
The 3 paragraphs below from the book Indian Givers by an anthropologist named Jack Weatherford, pages 182-183:
The Indian discovery of drug cures for a wide range of diseases did not spring merely from the fortuitous circumstance that America was bessed by nature with more drugs to be discovered. Quinine and ipecac happen to come from plants that grew only in America, but the cure of scurvy illustrates the general superiority of Indian medical knowledge and pharmacology. The Old World abounded in plants which could easily have cured this disease, but western science ignored them until the Indians demonstrated their utility.
The cure for scurvy first came to European attention in a dramatic incident during the second of three voyages to Canada made by the French explorer Jacques Cartier (1491-1557) for Francis I. In November 1535, after visiting the Huron town of Hochelaga, which later became the site of Montreal, Cartier's ships, the Grande Hermyne, the Petite Hermyne, and the Emerillon, became frozen in the St. Lawrence River. Cartier ordered his men ashore to build a small fortification in which to await the spring thaw. He traded provisions with local Indians, but he soon forbade the Indians to enter the fort because they showed signs of scurvy, and he did not want his men to catch this disease. Even then the Indians knew scurvy was not communicable. As the winter months slowly passed, scurvy soon began to stalk his men. They grew listless and weak. Their gums grew spongy and began to bleed, ugly splotches erupted on their skin, and they emitted a wretched stink. Of the 110 men, only ten showed no signs of the disease by February, and one by one the men died until twenty-five of his men were gone.
Cartier busily concealed the disease from the Indians for fear that they might attach the weakened men. Gradually, however, Cartier realized that the Indians who developed scurvy did not die but recovered their full health. He inquired cautiously about a cure, and the Indians readily showed him how to make a tonic from the bark and needles of an evergreen tree that the Hurons called annedda and was probably a hemlock or pine. This distasteful concoction carried a massive dose of vitamin C, the only cure for scurvy, and every man who took it recovered within eight days. Cartier dutifully recorded in his log that no amount of drugs from Europe or Africa could have done what the Huron drugs did in a week. In appreciation Cartier kidnapped the Indian chief Donnaconna and the other Indians in hopes that they could lead him to mountains of gold [Bakeless, John, The Eyes of Discovery. pages 115-116]