WWOOFer “That Guy” Charlie’s iPhone snapshots – part of his Master’s Degree in Photojournalism final project, taken during their 2-week stay with us. Follow their journey and his photography here!
Although the field has been frozen and dead for months now, we’ve been enjoying meals from it every day – we had kale that was indistinguishable from fresh-picked in December, and we’re enjoying perfect potatoes, carrots, beets, shiitake mushrooms, parsnips, cabbages, peppers, onions, leeks, cilantro, and parsley – all pulled as needed from the the cool humidity of our newly-completed root cellar.
There are some details to be completed still – the ventilation pipes need finishing, and the onset of hard freezes happened before we could build out the shelving or the internal door between the two rooms – but it’s likely always going to be a work in progress, like everything else here on the farm. It’s being used, and working as intended – so, done enough!
Click through the photo gallery to see how it was built …
We were awarded a grant from WWOOF-USA’s Small Farm Grant Program that helped cover a good chunk of the construction expenses – as part of it, they required that we submit a 3 minute video … so here it is for your viewing pleasure! Sorry about the awful lyrical pun.
… and if you’re really curious, here’s the grant proposal we submitted – if we hadn’t received it, I really don’t know if we would have gotten the project off the ground!
As an off-grid farm, we face unique challenges in vegetable production at every step of the process.
The storage of harvested crops has been a significant obstacle, without access to the modern convenience of electric refrigeration. We have handled this as best we can for the past four years by leaving root crops in the field until ready to eat or sell them, harvesting in the early morning the same day as farmers markets and CSA deliveries, time-intensive and time-sensitive canning, avoiding crop rotations that require mass harvesting, and through cooperation with an on-grid neighbor.
We seek a more efficient and sustainable, less energy-intensive and wasteful method of food storage.
Rather than connect to the electric company or attempt to build an off-grid version of the modern solutions used by other farms in our area (i.e. a walk-in refrigerator powered by a much larger solar panel/battery system), we are looking at the age-old methods used by traditional agriculturalists across times and cultures – using the stable temperatures and moisture of the Earth itself to keep the food we grow fresher, longer.
Toward this end, our research has led us to an earthen-floored root cellar, to be built on the wooded slope near our field. This will allow us to harvest when weather and growth dictate, and store crops protected from temperature extremes, precipitation, desiccation, animals, insects, and decay until they are to be used.
- Creation of a 12×12’ two-room root cellar with required temperature and humidity provided by the earth, appropriate for the off-grid short and long-term storage of crops grown on our farm
(the front room will provide a drier storage space which is cooler in winter and warmer in summer. The variation between sections allows for better storage conditions for different crops.)
- During severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, the root cellar will serve as storm shelter for farmers and WWOOFers.
- Follow best practices and design considerations from the book “Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage off Fruits and Vegetables” by Mike and Nancy Bubel
The Que Sehra Farm Root Cellar furthers WWOOF-USA’s mission:
- By working with next year’s WWOOFers to build the root cellar, and with future WWOOFers to work with the root cellar (storing fresh produce, making meals using root-cellared produce, monitoring and adjusting stored food, etc.) the Que Sehra Farm root cellar will serve to re-connect all who live, work, and eat on our farm to a pre-industrial practice found across cultures. This provides an ongoing educational exchange, reviving knowledge of essentially lost cultural practices to the young farmers of the future.
The Que Sehra Farm Root Cellar will benefit:
- Kristin and Gabe Sehr as farmers and homesteaders, and our growing community of WWOOFers, shareholders, family, friends, neighbors … our tribe, striving to reduce our dependence upon systems which we’d prefer not to support or engage with. We will be able to produce more in our small field by harvesting storage crops as soon as they reach maturity and using the freed up space to plant another succession of crops. We will provide fresh food for our community later into the fall and winter, a major goal for our short growing season.
- The experience we gain in root cellaring (principles, construction, use, maintenance) with be shared with WWOOFers for many years to come, and we all will bring that with us as we travel through the world to other WWOOF farms.
- Finally, our root cellar will serve as a storm shelter for ourselves and our hosted WWOOFers. We currently have no safe space to go in the event of a tornado; the trailer homes and simple shacks that we and our guests stay in are notoriously dangerous in severe weather. This is not an insignificant concern; in our state we average 30 tornadoes each year, and many more severe thunderstorms. In 2015 we had a WWOOFer suffer a full-on panic attack when a big thunderstorm came through. I’m writing this proposal while WWOOFing in south-central Georgia, where two days of tornadoes have just killed over a dozen people in the vicinity – and we were grateful for the brick structures our host farm had for us to shelter within. Storm safety is a meaningful secondary benefit that a root cellar would provide for us, as a WWOOF host farm.
The Que Sehra Farm Root Cellar will affect positive change:
- By making off-grid, organic farming more economically viable, more labor-efficient, and sustainable, and by serving as an example of how this can be done for others who wish to avoid the costs and burdens of dependence upon the power grid.
- By making it possible for us to bring a significantly greater quantity and quality of organic produce to our network of local food consumers.
Que Sehra Farm Profile
Kristin and Gabe Sehr both live and work full time on our farm from early March through late November with the help of WWOOFers, and when our land freezes, we WWOOF throughout the southern United States on other organic farms, learning new approaches & networking with like-minded people.
Our farm is on a small parcel of Sehr family land, which had been used previously for camping and hunting. With what we grow on the land, we feed ourselves, our WWOOFers, and a 25-member CSA, as well as sell produce through our local farmers market, and wholesale to local restaurants. We keep just over 1 acre in outdoor vegetable production, in addition to a 70×30’ high tunnel greenhouse, various perennial and fruit trees, and mushroom cultivation logs. We value the uncultivated areas as wildlife habitat.
Que Sehra Farm is not connected to the utility grid; our water comes from our well, our heat from the red oak trees that grow on most of our land, and our electricity needs are met by our modest solar energy system. Although we are not certified and are not interested in becoming so, we grow organically. We focus on low input methods. We hand pick pests, weed with hand tools, rotate crops for disease prevention, and apply abundant amounts of organic mulch and compost.
2017 will be our fourth year of hosting WWOOFers on our farm. When we started in 2013, WWOOFers had to sleep in tents, and we barely had enough solar power to run the lights. We’ve made many improvements since then, but still work, eat, and live side by side with the WWOOFers who come here.
We have hosted over twenty WWOOFers through the program, and plan on continuing to serve as hosts for the foreseeable future – from our first conception of radical lifestyle change, WWOOF has been the central pillar making it all possible – living simply without expensive winters or employees, forming a shifting tribe living in mutually-beneficial cooperation, depending on one another more than corporations and government.
We plan to remain small scale – avoiding the increased debt and expense that scaling-up is accompanied by. We plan to remain off grid, and continue to focus more on how we can thrive with less money, rather than how to make more, as is the standard path in our culture. A root cellar will provide security for us as homesteaders who grow as much of our own food as possible, and as farmers who earn our living from the land.
Three days ago, I packed up all my wool blend socks, sweaters, long underwear, and winter boots.
I was feeling optimistic, and perhaps hoping that by taking this step I would help do my part to ensure that winter goes away for the year. I’ve been premature in my Spring-faith before – even just earlier this month a wet, heavy snow took out the gutter I’d eagerly reinstalled on the side of our high tunnel greenhouse, hoping to collect some early rainwater for the first high tunnel crops.
So I shouldn’t have been surprised when this cold snap hit – highs in the 30s, lows in the 20s. I just finished putting sheets and buckets over the raspberry canes, rhubarb, and asparagus, which are apparently just as foolishly optimistic as I.
But even with more snow and cold, it’s indubitably Spring, albeit USDA Zone 4a style. Nature’s signs are everywhere – the evening choruses of peepers have returned, the evil quack grass is lushly taunting me, we’ve had our first tick and mosquito bites, and the hungry black bears have begun their raids on the Neighbors’ birdhouses.
Robins are twitterpating, dandelions blooming, rhubarb and asparagus emerging from their subterranean winter slumber.
Human signs of Spring abound as well – we have the fence up around the field to defend against critters great and small, the loggers are back to ravaging the surround forests, and we joined the annual horde of scavengers to Bloomington’s Curbside Pickup days to get free materials for the farm.
The first big push of seeds are all done germinating, and have now moved out of the trailer (where we kept them toasty near our woodstove), and into the greenhouse.
In there, the seedlings get ample sunlight during the days, and the hot weather plants (peppers, tomatoes, etc) stay warm overnights on the rocket-heater-warmed clay bench (we’ve improved our firing routine such that they’re enjoying temperatures around 30 degrees warmer than outside, all night long).
The first rows were planted in the high tunnel a couple of weeks ago – reluctantly, since we discovered that rabbits have been partying in there through the nights, and we feared devastation … but a combination of scent deterrents, homemade hot pepper spray, and wire fencing seems to have moved them on to less hostile environments.
In the last couple of days, the first field plants went into the ground, ready to soak up the days of rain that followed – peas, salad mix, turnips, radishes.
In other news, we’ve doing lots of spring cleaning around the farm, building a larger screen porch in preparation for the annual mosquito blood- drive, clearing out a patch of large oak-wilted trees to make room to plant new fruit trees (and to make firewood of course), plugging new mushroom logs, using the chickens to break down our abundant piles of oak leaves for use in compost, and experimenting with controlled burns in the meadows and woods on the margins of the field.
We’ve battled quack grass, spotted a fisher (a giant weasel basically), cursed the insanely-intelligent voles … and sat inside on a chilly gray day and finished this webpage update for you.
Hope you, too, are enjoying this slow, beautiful transformation from winter to spring! Life is strange and beautiful, and the struggle is the joy … we’re grateful to have such lucky abundance, such interesting problems. and such folks as you in our lives. Thanks!
When we left our civilized city career lives, we set a goal of spending as little money as we could, rather than focusing on ways to make more money. Toward this end, we remain disconnected from the utility grid, eat mostly our farm-grown food, and save money on toilet paper by using tree bark.
OK, that last part was a lie.
(Although we actually did look into, but reject, mullein leaf TP at one point!)
But generally, wherever we reasonably can, we avoid shopping and stores – rather than make a purchase, we first consider getting by without it, or re-purposing something we already have (which is why a well-stocked “junk pile” is crucial).
We are blessed by our proximity to the Twin Cities, which seems to be one of the more active Craigslist urban areas in the country – and we’ve become pretty effective scavengers on it. As you may know, Craigslist has a “Free” section where people give things away. In many cities, this section is a ghost town populated primarily by unwanted kittens, scams, and people seeking freebies. But not Minneapolis.
If you’ve ever checked it out casually, you probably were not too impressed – lots of old TVs and couches, and if you did find something interesting and tried to make contact, it was already taken by someone else.
Perhaps, someone like us.
The trick to successful Free Craigslisting is vigilance and speed. Anything good will be quickly snatched up, so we check frequently for new posts, and respond to good ones immediately – including our phone number, names, when we can pick up, and maybe even why we want it.
When someone will be getting a ton of responses, you want to stand out from the pack – more than once we’ve been told we were selected from a bunch of emails because we’re an organic farm that wants to use the item – and not a metal scrapper just looking to melt it down for a couple bucks.
More than anything (other than maybe lucky), you need to be flexible – open to using something unexpected, and open to things coming when they come and not when you think they should. (And of course,you need a trailer or a truck to haul the larger items!)
Giving people farm tours at our end-of-season pizza party, I was constantly describing various features as coming to us “free off Craigslist” – which inspired me to try to put a list together, which led to this post.
Here are just some of the many Free Craigslist scores that we rely on at the farm:
- Semi truck (aka the Barn)
One thing we really lacked in the early days was storage space – places to keep things out of the elements. We really lucked out when we found a free semi truck trailer on the list – and then the means to move it out to the farm came up with ridiculous serendipity. Parked on the edge of the field, this has become base to our solar panels and batteries, a storage area for field-related tools and supplies, a shade wall for the packing area, and a trellis for hops.
- Farmers market trailer – born in the 60’s as a pop-up camper, transformed into an ice-fishing shack, and then put up for free adoption on Craigslist- where we found it and brought it home to become our farmers’ market trailer, used to store & haul the canopy, tables, chairs, and miscellany we need for our booth. (Kristin’s dad added a sheet metal wedge to the front to make it more aerodynamic when we found it was like pulling an open parachute down the road).
- Playhouse chicken coop:
it wasn’t easy to get this overbuilt kids’ playhouse down off its stilts and get it back to the farm, but it was worth it in the end – it has made a wonderful chicken coop for our laying hens.
- Rust shack frame – my favorite guest shack on the land is sided in old body panels from 1920s/30s cars, which we originally scavenged simply for their aesthetic and historical appeal, from the ruins of a Depression-era homestead in what’s now state land. When we scored a free “pallet fort” off Craigslist and hauled it home, the panels were reborn as shack siding once more …
- The Albatross (mobile home guest cabins) –
In spring of 2015, the Albatross gave us two guest bedrooms, a bathroom (now with composting toilet and gravity solar shower),and a common area living room and kitchen – quite the upgrade, for only the cost of moving it to the farm (it was tricky to get a mover willing to haul such an antique, but we got lucky).
- The FishHouse ice shack
16×8 feet of insulated, easily-assembled, cozy indoor space for free! This not only has served as WWOOFer housing, but also as our cold weather quarters (also came with a free woodstove), and a controlled environment for sweet potato curing and herb drying.
- 12×18′ Screen Porch – At certain times of day and season, mosquitoes can be a real menace – a free screenporch from someone upgrading their lake cabin’s porch to an all-aluminum version provided us with a much-needed safe haven when the vampires were swarming.
- Fluorescent lighting – back before we built the little greenhouse, we had to start our seedlings indoors, on wire racks under lights – lights which we scored for free from an office that was switching to LEDs.
- Fire bricks and clay – we wanted to build a wood-fired rocket mass heater for the greenhouse, on a low budget. Craigslist graciously provided … first thousands of pounds of pure clay (we have literally no clay soil to use on our land), and then piles of insulative fire bricks!
- Raspberry bushes – hundreds of them! We just had to dig the roots up from the up-pick raspberry farm that was closing down.
- SO MUCH MISCELLANY… such as truck toppers (made into woodshed and chicken coop roofs, furniture, doors, windows, boards, bricks, blocks, hay bales, freezers, ladders, pallets, barrels and several 600 gallon IBC tanks for rainwater storage, water heater tanks, garden carts, two gargantuan 450 lb rolls of paper …… wooden stairs, shelves and cabinets, tons of rocks, hundreds of gallons of potting soil, a propane stove, a giant chalkboard (cut up into signs for the market booth), a clawfoot tub for off-grid hot baths …
… loads of horse and rabbit manure, hundreds of oranges and grapefruits (made into preserves and juice, while WWOOFing down south) …… a DIY wood-fired water heater core, electric oven turned electric smoker (which we turned wood-fired) …
… etc! I’ll amend this post as time goes on, since I have no doubt at all that Craigslist will continue to be a source of many free treasures – things that make our deliberately-low-budget lifestyle not only possible, but fun.
Holy wow, it’s already well into May! Signs of the season surround us, reminding us just how lively this landscape is … greenery is bursting forth from every tree, every patch of earth.
Our apple and pear trees are blooming, as are the trillium, violets, and wild plum trees. The perennials are coming up – chives, rhubarb, raspberry, mint, lemon balm … and we ate our first fresh asparagus of the season last week.
Throughout the nights, mystery critters crunch through the undergrowth or scramble across our trailer, coyotes caterwaul in chorus, barred owls demand to know “who cooks for you?“, and once in a while a fox or civet makes a freaky womanlike scream. My favorite night sound is the abundant whip-poor-wills – nocturnal bug-eating birds that I only hear here.
The black bears are out and about, scavenging for treats – a young male has been knocking over Neighbor Marcia’s birdfeeders, and the momma bear and her three cubs from last year were spotted in the woods behind us – the cubs are huge now, in their second year, and about ready to set out on their own.
As always, Spring has been an incredibly busy time, as we get everything ready for the season. My hands are stained black with soil, and feature a wound on each palm, from ignoring Kristin’s sage advice and pounding in a row of t-posts without gloves … which led to blisters that didn’t hold up well to the continued post-pounding I subjected them to.
Starting seeds, nurturing baby plants, preparing the field, keeping ourselves and the tender plants alive and warm through the chilly nights … it’s an intense time of the year, filled with all the opportunities for hope and fear that you could want!
The biggest change this year is the High Tunnel greenhouse we completed at the end of last autumn, thanks to a USDA grant.
It’s a powerful and complex 72×30′ tool that we’re learning to use. After the winter, we returned to find the ground inside it totally green with grass and weeds – a beautiful lively space to hang out in, while everything outside was barren and brown! But soon enough we had to till the green under to prepare the soil for planting.
We then laid out irrigation throughout – since no rain falls inside, all the plants’ water needs must be delivered by us. There are soaker hoses that are gravity-fed by our rainwater collection tanks up on the hill, and drip irrigation lines in each row, fed by the well. We’re also adding an experimental rainwater collection system on one edge … which should be able to collect over 600 gallons of water from a 1″ rainfall.
We primarily plan to grow hot weather crops inside, but to get things started while nights were still going below freezing we planted some salad mix and peas. They survived the cold nights just fine – but now the challenge is to keep them from overheating during the sunny days, when temperatures in the high tunnel can easily reach triple digits if we aren’t careful. To ventilate the high tunnel, we roll up the 70-foot long side panels, permitting a cross-breeze to move through. This works pretty well, however, if it’s not merely breezy but windy (basically anything over 10mph), then we have to close at least one side up to prevent damage to the structure. It’s been a learning experience trying to balance wind minimization with heat regulation – and it will get even more interesting when the hot, sunny days of summer are upon us. (We plan to add additional ventilation in the peaks on both sides to help move hot air out even when there is no breeze.)
We’ve been very fortunate to have plenty of help this Spring. It would be a ridiculously long blog post if I tried to list it all, but I’ll try to hit some highlights …
Kristin’s dad Patriarch Jim Sehr has been helping us out a ton with various construction and repair projects – he added a service door to the high tunnel for far easier access, engineered the rainwater collection on there, got the riding mower working, and plumbed in our new and improved well pressure tank. And Matriarch Deb Sehr came out to cut and plant potatoes – and even do some dishes so we can stay on top of the field and construction projects.
Neighbors Dave & Marcia kept our flock of hens happy throughout the winter, provided us with additional firewood to fuel both the greenhouse heater and the new WWOOFer cabin (more on that a bit), lent us gopher traps, tools, and best of all, their tractor!
Plus, when I was despondent thinking I’d killed our well pump (it turned out to just be a flipped breaker in the generator), Marcia brought over rhubarb custard dessert and ice cream; I literally cannot imagine better neighbors to have.
Our friends from the Cities have come out to work with us (thanks Tyler, Amy, Steffan, & Eugene!) , and we’ve had lots of help from B & Nora – the WWOOFer/musician couple that worked here throughout the end of last season, and then returned early this spring. We got a free ice fishing shack off of Craigslist – insulated and complete with a little wood stove.
This turned out to be a perfect solution for them to sleep in throughout April – they helped us build it, and then made it their home – although they’d been prepared to just rough it under huge piles of blankets, the heated, insulated Fish House worked out much more pleasantly. Oh, and their Maine Coon cat, “Bucket,” is working with us too – keeping the vole population down.
The field still looks pretty empty, but the first wave of food is taking root out there – potatoes, peas, onions, radishes, turnips, and various salad greens have begun to stir, stretch, yawn, and emerge into the sunshine. And of course, there are many hundreds of plants growing in the greenhouse, awaiting suitable weather to be transplanted out.
The eternal battle with the evil quackgrass is back in full swing – we till or broadfork the soil of each row before planting, and then pull out as much of the tenacious, ropey, unkillable rhizomes as possible.
We’ll be using thick layers of mulch to slow down what doesn’t get pulled (it regrows from every tiny piece of root left behind) … it’s not a war that we ever really win, but we hold it at bay enough to get our crops for the year.
We give it the good fight and it reminds us that our farming here is not about efficiency … or even being reasonable.
Like all of life, it’s absurd and irrational – and we love it.
Thanks for joining us in the adventure!