Some farmers rebuilding after snowstorm that crushed greenhouses

Daily Hampshire Gazzette

By Rebecca Everett

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

EASTHAMPTON — Farmer Kristen Wilmer grows salad greens year-round, so when she needed a greenhouse a year and a half ago, she bought the sturdy, steep-roofed Rimol Nor’easter, which is designed with New England winters in mind.

But when she arrived at the 5-acre site of Wild Sky Farm off Holly Circle the day after the Feb. 8 and 9 nor’easter, she found the $10,000 greenhouse crumpled under feet of snow, with all the salad greens pinned below.

“It’s supposed to be good at shedding snow. It’s supposed to hold 2 to 3 feet of snow and we only got 1½ feet of dry powder,” she said. “But the wind made it drift only on the south side and put it off balance.”

The steel framework on the entire south-facing side of the 72-foot-long, 30-foot-wide greenhouse bent under the weight of the snow until it touched the ground. Those 2-inch-thick steel rods are beyond repair, as is the stretched-out and holey greenhouse plastic, Wilmer said. The crops in the greenhouse she was planning to sell at farmers markets are likely a “total loss.”

“I’m trying to assess my options at this point, but there’s nothing to do that’s going to be cheap,” she said. “We may be able to salvage part of it.”

Wilmer is not the only farmer in the Valley who is weighing what to do with the pile of crumpled steel and plastic that was once a greenhouse. Farms in Sunderland, Whately and Greenfield are among those that lost all or part of their greenhouses or other similar structures used for winter growing because of the drifting snow. Some are already rebuilding, while others who rely less on the structures are just planning to clear away the rubble in the spring.

Wilmer said the possibility of collapse is a risk farmers take when they opt to build greenhouses in snowy climates. She is looking into ways to reinforce any future greenhouses to see if she can limit that risk at all.

“Extreme snowfalls seem to be more common now, I don’t know if it’s global warming or what, but we seem to get more and more every year,” she said. “I think there’s certainly the potential that this could be even more of a problem in the future.”

‘Highly unusual’

Kitchen Garden Farm co-owner Caroline Pam woke up on Feb. 9 to see that about half of the Sunderland farm’s massive greenhouse had collapsed under the drifting snow less than two years after they spent $75,000 to erect it.

“These were highly unusual circumstances,” she said of the conditions that caused their Nor’easter greenhouse to collapse just as Wilmer’s had. “The snow drifted and accumulated on the south side of the greenhouse, so eventually the roof couldn’t shed snow and it collapsed.”

But unlike Wilmer’s greenhouse, which was damaged along its entire length, only one end of the 186-foot-long, 30-foot-wide structure collapsed. Still, Pam estimated it would cost between $5,000 and $10,000 to repair the greenhouse. Half of the crops were lost at a cost of around $5,000 or $6,000.

Workers at first sealed off the undamaged half to protect the crops in it and then set about shoveling the snow off the rest of the wreckage. They salvaged what they could and now they’re rebuilding.

“We’ve got a good deal of the frame back up. We hope that by the end of the week we’ll be able to pull the plastic over,” she said. “That’s the main part of our winter growing operation and we have a winter CSA so we’re eager to try to get a new crop in there.”

Farm insurance companies do not cover greenhouses that are damaged due to snow or ice. But Pam said the farm is going to make the case that the greenhouse should be covered because wind was such a big factor in its failure.

“Maybe we might be able to get some help,” she said.

At Red Fire Farm in Granby and Montague, the six greenhouses that cover about a half-acre are all still standing after the storm. The factor that seems to have spared their greenhouses from the same fate as Wilmer’s and Pam’s is their orientation, said farm co-owner Ryan Voiland.

Red Fire Farm’s greenhouses are oriented north to south because Voiland believes it gives plants more even sunlight, while Wilmer’s and Pam’s were not.

“We weren’t thinking about snow, but ours happened to be oriented north-south. Greenhouses going east-west collapsed because the snow happened to be collecting on the south side because of the direction of the wind,” he said. “Some of the drifting was amazing. In some places it was 6 to 8 feet deep.”

The greenhouses survived, but two 200-foot-long, 12-foot-wide “caterpillar tunnels” and the crops inside them were crushed at the Montague farm. The tunnels are 6-foot-tall “little greenhouses” made of plastic stretched over a series of hoops, he said.

“It’s somewhat risky to use them in winter, but we were hoping if we were diligent about going out every couple hours and pulling the snow off them it would get the weight off,” he said. “That had been successful so far.”

He and his wife, Sarah, went out roughly every four hours, but by 3 a.m. the tunnels were both 90 percent crushed.

Luckily the tunnels, which cost about $1,500 each, only held a small amount of their winter crops and a crop of kale was picked just before the storm. Voiland is also hopeful that the hearty greens like spinach will stay alive if dormant under the snow. “Either way it’s not a huge loss for us,” he said.

Even though the tunnels are comparatively cheap to build, he doesn’t think they’ll rebuild them, mainly because the design is rather labor-intensive when compared to a regular greenhouse.

He said the increase in demand for fresh, local produce year-round makes it worthwhile to take some risks growing through snowy New England winters.

“It’s a strong market,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of analyses and we’re still making a reasonable return.”

Some of the farmers who lost greenhouses were not using them, so they didn’t lose any crops.

That was the case at Harvest Farm in Whately, where three of the farm’s 15 greenhouses were severely damaged.

David Wojciechowski, co-owner of the wholesale vegetable farm, said the three were empty and while he considers two destroyed, one may be salvageable.

“It’s no big deal — I’ve had 20, 25 good years out of these,” he said.

Material from The Recorder was used in this story.