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Deep Winter Greenhouses hold exciting possibilities

January 15, 2017

So, what are you hoping you’ll see in the future with Deep Winter Greenhouses (DWGs)?

“A good place for the whole garden operation.”

“I think it’d be neat to see this implemented both on the home scale and on the more production scale.”

“More research and development!”

“I’m really hoping to see more of these greenhouses being used at schools.”

If there’s one thing I learned while interviewing people about Deep Winter Greenhouses, it’s that these greenhouses can mean a lot of different possibilities to different people – and each of those possibilities is exciting.

What’s a DWG?

A Deep Winter Greenhouse (DWG) is a passive solar greenhouse that decreases fossil fuel use by relying on solar heat and an underground system of rock bed, soil, and drain tiles to store heat. The University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships' (RSDP) work with DWGs took root 13 years ago, when founders Carol Ford and her late husband Chuck Waibel built a Deep Winter Greenhouse.

Since then, the Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships has partnered with – and later, hired – Ford to spread the word through the Northlands Winter Greenhouse Manual (Ford & Waibel, 2009) and further develop this innovation. Eventually, this work and growing interest in the technology culminated in the 2016 RSDP statewide effort to work with five producers to build five prototype DWGs for research and outreach. Funding to build the five prototype DWGs, one per RSDP Region, came from a consortium of farm lending banks. Although a small handful of DWGs have already been built by various producers, these prototypes will help connect new University of Minnesota research to the process and share the technology with more farmers.

The DWG design was updated by researcher Daniel (Dan) Handeen of the College of Design’s Center for Sustainable Building Research. These prototypes will be built by farmers and community organizations across the state as part of RSDP’s statewide initiative. The prototypes will be kept open to the public for research and educational events for a period of three years. Hopes for the future of DWGs are high, and possibilities abound in many different directions. RSDP staff and community partners interviewed for this article shared their visions for the technology’s potential.

Prototype drawing of a Deep Winter Greenhouse.
Prototype Deep Winter Greenhouse designed by Dan Handeen, College of Design Center for Sustainable Building Research.

Good place for the whole garden

To David Abazs, a DWG is a way to add a lot of value to the whole farm while also helping out the environment. “What really appealed to me is the low carbon outputs after the initial structure is built,” said Abazs.

Abazs serves on the board of the Organic Consumers Association in Finland, Minnesota – site of the first prototype DWG being built as part of RSDP’s statewide initiative. He and his family also run a CSA farm in Finland where they grow a variety of vegetables, fruit, and other crops. As Abazs explained, when RSDP invited community applications to partner in building and testing the prototype, he jumped at the chance to try DWG gardening of his own. “It will be a good place for the whole garden operation, from seedling starting to teaching the residents,” Abazs said.

The Organic Consumers Association is building the first prototype. Once completed, it will be the first DWG in the area, and neighbors will be able to explore this innovative way to grow in the winter. Overall, Abazs said it’s been a busy, but exciting project, and working with RSDP has been a pleasure. “RSDP is a huge help in developing the local foods in our area.”

(Note: Since the publication of this article, the Finland DWG open house took place on February 18, 2017.)

New way to produce

To Greg Schweser, who leads this body of work for RSDP, technological and economic opportunities abound with DWGs. In November 2016, Schweser organized a research convening on DWGs at the University of Minnesota St. Paul Campus, where he heard a lot of exciting research proposals. For instance, researcher Dr. John Erwin (Horticultural Science) is looking at adding lights and higher CO2 levels to test 150-200 varieties of plants.

“The convention was exciting because it was the first time many people were able to get into the same room together. It showed there was interest both with faculty and on the ground [in communities],” Schweser said.

Schweser is busy continuing to connect additional producers with the new technology. In the short term he looks forward to seeing new prototypes built at the Bemidji Community Food Shelf, Grandpa G's Farm in Pillager, the Alternate Roots Farm in Madelia, and the Lake City Catholic Worker Farm, who are also partnering with RSDP to build the prototype design.

“Eventually,” Schweser said, “I think it’d be neat to see this implemented both on the home scale and on the more production scale.”

Not just for leafy greens

RSDP Statewide Director Kathy Draeger was involved with DWGs from the start. She worked with Chuck Waibel to write the Bush Foundation fellowship that helped launch the project, and after Waibel’s tragic and untimely death she worked with Ford to keep the project going through a legacy grant. “I think we are still realizing Chuck’s legacy,” Draeger said.

Draeger was instrumental in the behind-the-scenes work that made the statewide prototype initiative possible. For instance, Dr. Draeger’s prior work with United FCS and a consortium of banks led AgriBank Farm Credit Bank, AgCountry Farm Credit Services and Compeer Financial to donate approximately half the construction costs for the five DWGs, making this homegrown solution to energy-efficient local foods a reality. Developing and implementing the statewide DWG initiative was made possible by support from the University of Minnesota Extension, Institute on the Environment, and MnDRIVE Global Food Ventures. Support in developing the prototype has also been provided by Mattson Macdonald Young structural engineers.

For Draeger, some of the most exciting work ahead lies in bringing DWG beyond growing leafy greens. “What I’d like to see next is more research and development. We can build rainwater collections into the design. ... We could adapt the greenhouse design to include an adjacent root cellar to store root crops that could be a part of a robust winter CSA.”

Educational opportunity

Turning the idea of DWGs into a movement has been a tremendous journey for farmer and DWG pioneer Carol Ford, who shared her inspiring story in a TEDx Minneapolis talk. Throughout this process, RSDP has been invaluable, and Ford is now a proud employee of RSDP. “RSDP is uniquely positioned to be this place that connects not only with the potential for research, but also connecting with the people who need this technology,” Ford said. “Sometimes it’s hard for people who are strictly research to connect with the farmers, but RSDP does both. What we are doing is helping solve problems, and that is what the U, as a land-grant institution, can and should be doing. I am very proud to be a part of that.”

Backhoe digging dirt in front of a Deep Winter Greenhouse under construction.
Construction of the prototype DWG at Organic Consumers Association in Finland, Minnesota.

As exciting as research is, in the future Ford is especially hopeful about the prototype’s educational possibilities. Already RSDP is planning on hosting educational workshops for socially disadvantaged farmer groups, including the Hmong American Farmers Association and the White Earth Land Recovery Project. Many of these communities live in food deserts, so local, fresh sources of food can have a huge impact. There is also tremendous opportunity for attaching DWGs to schools. “I’m really hoping to see more of these greenhouses being used at schools. When you’re talking about trying to incorporate more fresh produce in a family diet, the best way is to work with kids. [There is] so much curriculum that can be done in a greenhouse.”

Providing testimony to the educational potential of this work, in a fall 2016 survey of participants in RSDP’s DWG programming over the years, almost all (93%) reported that RSDP’s DWG work positively impacted their knowledge, attitudes, or understanding of local food issues. Asked about effects on the broader community, nearly all (92%) also agreed that RSDP’s work on DWGs has positively impacted knowledge, attitudes, or understanding of local food issues in their community (Mohr, Burgess-Champoux, Rice, & Schweser, 2016).

What do DWGs mean to you?

Whether as a good place for the whole garden, a new way to produce, a way to grow products beyond leafy greens, or as a tool to educate, DWGs store not just sunlight, but also enormous potential. That potential starts with each of us, as we all work together to find innovative sustainable and energy-friendly ways to feed our communities. And besides, who wouldn’t want a fresh, delicious vegetable in the middle of winter? As Ford says, “This is an absolutely premium food product we’re creating! We are used to getting week-old greens in a cellophane bag ... and that’s nothing like what’s coming from these greenhouses.”

To learn more about DWGs and upcoming events, visit RSDP’s Deep Winter Greenhouse resource page.

Elizabeth Braatz, January 2017

Elizabeth Braatz graduated in spring 2017 from the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resources Sciences (CFANS) with a degree in Environmental Sciences, Policy and Management. She worked with RSDP as a Student Writer/Communications Assistant during her junior and senior years.

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