Hole in the ground wins premiers award
By Brandy Harrison
COBDEN Behind a red door nestled into the side of a hill, Zach Loeks is right at home in an underground pantry filled to the brim with carrots, potatoes, and beets.
“It makes me feel like a hobbit,” says the Cobden market gardener about the 600 sq. ft. root cellar that keeps him busy with year-round business. The cost-saving adaptation of an old idea to keep veggies fresh recently earned Loeks and his wife, Kylah Dobson, a $5,000 premiers award for agri-food innovation excellence.
When they started Rainbow Heritage Garden in 2007, they used basement storage, eventually insulating and outfitting an old, partially-buried cream cellar with a compressor. But by Christmas, everything froze solid.
Their current farm threw another wrench into the storage problem: its off the grid.
With no electricity and plenty of dirt, they started digging.
The walk-in root cellar is carved out of a hill, providing space for as much as 70,000 lb. of produce, sealed underneath about 10 ft. of soil and insulation.
In summer or winter, its about a constant 9 C at 10 ft. below ground and the earth acts as both an insulator and a buffer that stymies temperature swings and keeps excess humidity at bay.
But they still needed extra chilling power in the dog days of summer.A quick look around the farm hatched another plan: repurposing the Rubbermaid bins they use for summer produce drop-offs, Loeks makes his own ice with solar-power pumped water from their frost-proof hydrant. In January and February, he makes between 800 and 900 blocks of ice that stack like a mini glacier in the back quarter of the cellar.
Since they finished the cellar in 2011, spoilage has dropped to almost nil and it keeps their fall harvest of certified organic root vegetables dormant for months. “Well have carrots in June and July that are still crisp and crunchy.”
With 365-days-a-year cold storage, they can sell produce through the winter months. In 2007, they had just 15 community-supported agriculture (CSA) customers that paid upfront for weekly produce baskets. They now have 275 and Loeks gives the root cellar which has become a symbolic draw for on-farm events the lions share of the credit for customer retention.
“The seasonality of farming is very dangerous because people forget about you. We were struggling to generate CSA interest in our area and it really helped things boom.”