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Elk’s Bluff Winter Greenhouse feeds a growing appetite for local foods

Tim and Shelly Elkington, of Montevideo, had lots of help from friends as they erected a 12-foot by 44-foot, passive solar greenhouse to produce cool-weather greens through the winter as part of a community-supported agriculture venture. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny) 1 / 2
Tim Elkington’s escape from winter is also his business. He raises cool-weather greens in a passive solar greenhouse he erected to serve the local foods market through the winter in the Montevideo area. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)2 / 2

MONTEVIDEO — No airline ticket to a southern destination required for Tim Elkington.

He makes his escape from winter every day with a short stroll through a big, red barn, which leads him right into the passive solar greenhouse he attached to it last summer.

He and his wife Shelly call it Elk’s Bluff Winter Greenhouse.

It’s filled with thriving, cool-weather greens of all types, from aromatic arugula, cabbage and Swish chard to butter crunch lettuce.

It’s the sunlight, greenery and warmth that make it a perfect escape from winter, but it’s the opportunity to grow a new industry that brings Elkington into the greenhouse each day.

The 14-foot by 44-foot greenhouse the Elkingtons added to their farm property just outside of Montevideo along Minnesota Highway 7/U.S. 59 is designed to serve a market for local foods that is just as robust in the winter as summer.

“We’ve had to turn people away,’’ said Shelly of the demand they found for the cool-weather greens.

The Elkingtons believe the demand is two-fold. People support local foods and the benefits to the local economy. And, more people are seeking to mix a greater variety of fresh and nutritious foods into their diets.   

The Elkingtsons are using the model of community-supported agriculture. They provide an assortment of greens each week to 10 subscribers. For an upfront payment, subscribers receive a share of each week’s produce through a season that will run into April.  

Lifelong residents of the Montevideo area, the Elkingtons at an open house last autumn introduced their friends to the idea that fresh greens could be raised affordably through the winter.     

“Everyone was just surprised, amazed that you could do it,’’ said Shelly.

They can, and there really is no secret to it. Seven years ago, Chuck Waibel and Carol Ford pioneered the idea with their passive solar greenhouse in Milan. They have told their story to audiences all over the northern U.S. and much of Canada in the years since. They’ve also published a book, “The Northlands Winter Greenhouse Manual’’ to show others how to do it.

Using inexpensive materials and off-the-shelf technology, they show how to construct a passive solar greenhouse that requires very little fossil-fuel energy.  

Tim Elkington is an avid gardener who previously operated his own electric motor business. He enjoys tinkering with the greenhouse to increase its energy efficiency as much as he does raising the produce inside.

Shelly, who operates her own business, Avenues for Care in Montevideo, is his helper as time allows.

A winter greenhouse of this size will pay for itself over time, and provide a supplemental income, said Tim Elkington. He is planning to work with Waibel and Ford and others to encourage more people to build their own winter greenhouses. He is convinced that a large market is waiting, if a sufficient and consistent supply can be assured.

Waibel agrees. Since publishing his book, he’s toured dozens of passive solar greenhouses across the country and in Canada. He’s found amazing variations on how to build the greenhouses, but one thing is always the same.

“I told Tim. You will find that the demand for what you will grow here, you can’t do it. You can’t meet it,’’ said Waibel.

The Elkingtons deliberately kept their scale of operation modest during their first year, but intend to double their number of subscribers for next year.

There’s already a waiting list.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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