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Carpio greenhouse is first of its kind in state

As September gives way to October and most gardeners clear their plots, Marvin and Ilene Baker of North Star Farms at Carpio are gearing up for their next season--winter in the greenhouse.

9/28/11 (Wed)


As September gives way to October and most gardeners clear their plots, Marvin and Ilene Baker of North Star Farms at Carpio are gearing up for their next season--winter in the greenhouse.


The Bakers have delivered certified organic produce directly to 59 shareholders under a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) plan through the summer. They hope to continue that arrangement with at least some of their customers through the winter, thank to a passive solar greenhouse.


The unit works with four large, black, water-filled bladders that absorb sunlight. “It’s the first of its kind in North Dakota,” Marvin said. “We’re reasonably sure it will heat [the greenhouse] to -20 degrees Fahrenheit.”


He smiled before adding, “But it does have a backup heater.”


The Bakers plan to grow spinach, brassicas (such as cabbage and broccoli), lettuce and peas. “I’m kind of thinking of Vidalia onions, too,” Marvin said. “They’re a short-day onion.”


He is known for taking risks in his garden operation, which he and Ilene transformed from the idea stage in 2004 to employing two people full-time and one part-time this year.


Marvin enjoys the challenge of growing plants that shouldn’t survive conditions on the northern plains, including okra, peanuts, tobacco and, this year, Cascade hops.


“I’ve tried hops before and failed and thought the flooding early this summer would have crushed this attempt,” he said. “In fact, I planted 14 rhizomes and seven grew.”


He is also participating in a project funded by the USDA Sustainable Agriculture and Education Program to test heritage varieties of seed originally developed in North Dakota, in conjunction with organic seed grower Theresa Podoll of LaMoure and Steve Zwinger of Carrington. The project focused on 10 vegetables originally available through the Oscar Wills Seed Co. of Bismarck. As the trio researched the project, they discovered the Oscar Wills catalogs dating back to the late 1800s.


“He befriended the Native Americans here and started working with the varieties they were growing,” Theresa explained. “We decided to take a look at some of the older varieties specifically bred for this region.”


Marvin provided a test plot at the farthest northern latitude. “Some of these varieties are doing very well and some are failing miserably,” he said.


Among the failures were the Improved Guernsey parsnips, the Imperator carrots, and the self-blanching celery. The Homesteader and Improved Gradus peas flooded.


However, successes included the Nueta and Early June sweet corn, the Banquet and Arikara squash and the Niagara cucumber, a 1930s variety that out-performed new varieties. The Mandan and Cavalier tomatoes were slow to mature, and the Clemson okra was bearing fruit. Baker remained hopeful about the Granite State cantaloupe.


Eventually, the three growers would like to make the heritage varieties available for northern gardens. “We’re trying to promote local foods locally grown,” said Marvin.


The Bakers continue to develop their certified organic farm, with long-range plans to build a processing line and refrigerated building. Marvin is exploring opportunities to expand their operation to the southern tier of the state and to become certified organic according to Canadian standards in order to sell in the Estevan market.


The winter greenhouse project will be the next immediate step for North Star Farms, though. “Imagine fresh, homegrown organic vegetables for Christmas dinner,” said Marvin. “It’s not out of reach. Last year, I delivered the last load [of produce] to the Pirogue Grille in Bismarck on December 3rd, and the greenhouse wasn’t done.”


In fact, he’s already looking forward to December 21st. “We have eight hours and three minutes of daylight that day,” he said, “and as sure as I’m sitting here, I will have plants growing in the greenhouse.”