Local Self-Reliance: Building Low-Cost Greenhouses

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Photo by Fotolia/Bernard GIRARDIN
Local Self-Reliance helps urban homesteaders learn about building low-cost greenhouses.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance helps urban homesteaders learn about building low-cost greenhouses.

For the past several years, the good folks at the Institute
for Local Self. Reliance in Washington, D.C. have worked to
help urban residents gain greater control over their lives
through the use of low-technology, decentralist tools and
concepts. We strongly believe that more people (city
dwellers and country folk alike) should be exposed to the
Institute’s efforts . . . which is why we’re now making this
“what’s happening where” report by ILSR staffers one of
MOTHER’s regular features.

There’s no question that the new focus on energy and food
self-reliance has sparked a good deal of interest in
low-cost “solar” greenhouses lately Oust look through the
last year’s worth of MOTHER, and you’ll see what we mean).
All across the country, people are experimenting with new
methods of greenhouse design and management, In some cases,
this experimentation is helping to provide high quality food
for those who can least afford to buy it.

Of course, as many groups have learned the hard way, the
greenhouse business can be a tricky one. In Frobisher Bay
in the Northwest Territories, Canada, an experiment with
greenhouses for the local Eskimo population ran into
serious planning problems, the biggest of which involved
crop selection. For example, instead of choosing vitamin-
and mineral-rich indigenous sorrel for cultivation, the
greenhouse managers chose to produce lettuce. Lettuce
commanded a higher price, but the Eskimos didn’t want to
eat it . . . so the project had to be redesigned.

Here in the States, however, several organic greenhouse
projects designed to benefit low-income people have proven
to be quite successful. For example, in the past year or so
Bill Yanda and his staff at the Solar Sustenance Project in
New Mexico have conducted 19 different weekend greenhouse
workshops . . . each of which involved the actual
construction of a 10 foot by 16 foot or 10 foot by 20 foot greenhouse. (Of
those 19 greenhouses, only two are having any trouble with
organization or cultivation.) The Project also recently
completed a 1,600-square-foot greenhouse on the Navajo
Nation for a Catholic mission for retarded youth. In each
case, the folks who build the greenhouse also manage it.

So far, almost 1,100 people have attended the Solar
Sustenance Project’s workshops in New Mexico. To get an
idea of how useful these study programs have actually been,
Bill Yanda chose 100 of the 1,100 people at random and sent
them short questionnaire cards to see if they planned on
using their newly acquired greenhouse expertise. Of the 40
persons who answered the solicitation, 13 replied that they
had already built a greenhouse and 28 more wrote that they
did plan to build one. Which means that it the sample of
100 was a representative one, there are already 130
greenhouses in New Mexico built by people who attended
Solar Sustenance workshops.

The Domestic Technology Institute in Evergreen, Colorado is
another example of an organization that has been successful
in providing technical assistance to groups interested in
constructing solar reliant greenhouses. Already, more than
500 people have gone through DTI’s one-week training
sessions. One of DTI’s most exciting projects was carried
out in the summer of 1976 in conjunction with Cheyenne,
Wyoming’s Community Action Agency. In this undertaking, 20
teenagers (all but one of whom were on probation) were
hired as part of CAA’s Summer Youth Employment program to
build three small (12 foot by 16 foot) greenhouses. After a one-week
training session in tool use, building methods, and public
presentation, the crews began work. By the end of the
summer, completed greenhouses were in operation at a local
Head Start center, a community food and nutrition center,
and a local food co-op. All three greenhouses make use of
organic planting methods and are managed primarily by
people already working at the three sites.

This experience has led Domestic Technology and the
Cheyenne CAA to plan a large-scale community greenhouse.
The building will — when it’s finished — offer 5,000 square
feet of growing space in three separate but interconnected
buildings. (This arrangement permits the existence of
different micro-environments within the structure. Equally
important, the greenhouse is designed in such a way that
unskilled builders can do the construction work.) A site
has already been donated by a member of the community. The
finished greenhouse will be maintained by the participants
in a “meals for the low-income elderly” program, and the
food produced in the building will be used in that program.

Large-scale greenhouses are also being planned in
Washington, D.C. and in New Hampshire. “I can’t even begin
to tell you how many solar greenhouses have been or are now
being built,” explains Andrea Dunn of DTI. “But I can tell
you that it is happening all over!” If you want to know
what your community can do in this field, write to Andrea
at Domestic Technology Institute, P.O. Box 2043, Evergreen
Colorado 80439 . . . Bill Yanda, Solar Sustenance Project, Rt.
1, Box 107AA, Santa Fe, N.M. 87501 . . . or Miranda Smith,
Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 1717 18th St. N.W.,
Washington, D.C. 20009.

To get on the mailing list for ILSR’s bimonthly magazine,
Self-Reliance, send $6.00 to ILSR, 1717 18th St. N.W.,
Washington, D.C. 20009, Better yet, why not become an
associate member of the Institute (and — in addition to
receiving their magazine — obtain a 20% discount on all ILSR
publications) by sending $25 ($19 of which is
tax-deductible) to the above address? — MOTHER.