(left to right) Zach Loeks, Kylah Dobson and their two children. The couple operate their farm, Rainbow Heritage Gardens, completely off-grid, which has led to the need for many different innovative ideas. Photo courtesy of Rainbow Heritage Gardens
It’s a long way from the hot hills of New Mexico to the frozen landscape of eastern Ontario in winter, but it’s a strong connection to the land and environment – and in this case, the use of its freezing temperatures – that has earned the owners of Rainbow Heritage Garden a second regional Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence. The award is given to farm businesses for things like adding value to existing products and building economic growth, which is exactly what Zach Loeks and Kylah Dobson have accomplished.
Kylah and Zach met during their first week at Concordia University and found they had mutual passions for “the outdoors, adventure, all things that grow, and cooking.” They studied and got to know each other while making meals with the contents of Zach’s community supported agriculture (CSA) basket from Le Jardin de la Montagne in Rougemont, Que. By the winter of 2006 (during their third year), the couple decided to try a summer market garden business together, focussing on heirloom varieties. It would be located on Kylah’s family farm in the Ottawa Valley, which had been settled by her ancestors seven generations ago in 1857 (and where her father runs a successful grass-fed beef operation). The couple applied successfully for two grants to get things going, and their first season in 2007 left them with a taste for more. Dobson and Loeks realized after graduation in the spring of 2008 they wanted to farm full time.
Even though Loeks had experience on farms in the southern U.S. (he grew up in Sante Fe, N.M.) and Dobson had gardened all her life (and also, worked at her uncle’s horticultural business and volunteered on farms in Central America), they knew they had much to learn. They set about absorbing knowledge from everywhere – books, the web, workshops, conferences and fellow farmers. Dobson and Loeks decided they would stay focussed on heirloom varieties, grown organically. Although it was mostly direct sales at first, the operation is now primarily a CSA farm with some extra sales on-farm and at markets and events. From 20 acres of production, Rainbow Heritage Garden now offers more than 150 varieties of certified organic fruits, vegetables, nuts, herbs, edible and decorative flowers and dry beans.
Their home and farm business eventually went off-grid, which has led to much innovation. (Rainbow Heritage Garden’s first regional Premier’s Award specifically recognized a mobile solar generator system used for irrigation and more.)
“To make a living, to achieve commercial farming off-grid, you need to do things in ways that mostly don’t use any power or use very little power,” Loeks says. “We use only solar for electricity generation, but it’s about using other alternative forms of power and power savings.”
Garlic is cured, for example, in a barn where the boards upstairs can open to accept the prevailing wind. The innovative use of geothermal heating and cooling has led to their second Premier’s Award for the design and construction of a unique 600-square-foot root cellar constructed in a hillside in 2011.
Up until that point, the couple had used several types of storage for their harvest. First it was the basement of a house, with produce moved to market as soon as possible. Their second storage system was a cream cellar located in part of an old barn, which Dobson and Loeks insulated and outfitted with an air conditioner. But it just didn’t stay cold enough as the summer days heated up, and the air conditioning left the vegetables dry as well.
“So then we had to bag them, and then you get condensation, which can cause rot,” Loeks recalls. “In the winter, we had to put in a heater to prevent freezing, but that was uneven heat, from one source, and there was condensation then as well.”
Money and time was being spent on systems that just didn’t work.
“We would regularly have stuff spoil as we were stretching the limits,” Loeks explains. “People were and are looking for fresh local food all winter instead of grocery-store imported food, and we would try to have this available, but it was difficult to do economically.”
A solution that kept veggies in top condition and required little or no power was in order. That meant delving into the past to see what had worked in times where there was no electricity available.
“It used to be that everything was off-grid, and so you need to see what people came up with,” Loeks says. “We read about the different root cellars and caves that have been in use in Europe for centuries, and they work well. They’re still in use. If it ain’t broke, you don’t fix it.”
A root cellar, Loeks explains, provides a great deal of natural insulation against the winter cold and summer heat with natural geothermal heating and cooling coming steadily from all directions. He likens winter in a root cellar to what vegetables in the ground going dormant would experience. It’s a constant temperature most of the year, but during the summer, things do get warmer. That’s where the ice comes into play.
The Rainbow Heritage Garden root cellar was custom-designed to hold ice to provide a cooling effect in the summer heat (although Loeks is quick to point out that existing root cellars could be retrofitted). However, where to get the ice was a conundrum. Trying to harvest pieces from a river a 45-minute tractor drive away didn’t align with their farming values, and didn’t sound particularly safe either. There was an irrigation pond 1,000 feet from the root cellar, but Loeks pushed for a better solution.
“We brainstormed all sorts of things and making blocks of ice sounded crazy at first, but then it started sounding better and better,” he says. “But then, how do you make molds? You need to spend money and time making them, and then you have to find somewhere to store them in the summer.”
It turned out the answer was staring him in the face. The farm already had molds on hand, and they weren’t used in the winter. It was their CSA baskets, which are plastic tote bins, and come winter, they have to be stored until needed again. They would make perfect blocks of ice. Loeks fills them from their well, run by a solar pump that’s right in front of the cellar.
“It’s an amazing solution,” he says. “It costs nothing, and uses only human power, solar power and the cold.”
Meltwater drains over a plastic-covered sloped area connected to existing drainage tile. There are four bays enclosed with poly air-locked curtains.
“It’s fabulous, and I should probably build another one,” says Loeks. “It’s completely full of vegetables. We have very little wastage now, and the space is amazing. A root cellar allows you to organize, first crop in, first crop out, and so on. Access is paramount. You know your vegetables are going to be in perfect shape all year long. And it makes economic sense, with all my time factored in.”
The cellar holds 20,000 pounds of produce.
Having now won two regional Premier’s Awards, Loeks is more than qualified to give an opinion of their value.
“They’re great because they help put the word out there and they’re great because they encourage innovation,” he says. “The money also helps you with future innovations.”
If the past is any indication, more innovation at Rainbow Heritage Garden is on the way.
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