MERRILL — When Don Nichols retired six years ago, he was looking for a way to put fresh, locally grown foods into people’s hands. Through discussions with local U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service District Conservationist Peggy Winter, Nichols decided to apply for a grant that would fund a hoop house on his Merrill farm.
“I did the application and it took about two or three years for the final approval. We got approved in mid-year 2016 and then it was a scramble to get the building ordered and put up. The snow was already on the ground by the time we got the cover on it,” he said.
His first growing season in the new hoop house was in 2017. Nichols said that in his first two seasons he has learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t and has adjusted accordingly.
“We changed a lot of things this second year because we found that there was real congestion last year, so we changed spacing. It is a learning process,” he said. “Even this year, we see things that we won’t do again next year.”
The hoop house grant program is a zero-energy-input program that is intended to be a season extender for farmers. With no heat added, the greenhouse gives Nichols another month in the spring and fall for his vegetables to grow.
“It really is a game changer. They say it is like putting a stickpin in the map and then moving it 500 miles south. That is what it amounts to. So it definitely creates a heck of a lot better growing environment,” he said.
Nichols and his wife, Bonnie, grow numerous crops including strawberries, sweet peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, melons including cantaloupe and watermelon, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi and varieties of lettuce. In addition to the hoop house, they have two outdoor gardens where he grows beans, beets, dill, potatoes, squash and pumpkins. They also have started fruit trees and work with bees to help pollinate the crops.
“I would say tomatoes, cucumbers and sweet peppers are probably something that we can’t meet the demand for and I think as we go along, we will probably continue to increase production of those,” Nichols said.
To expand production, Nichols said he is toying with the idea of adding another hoop house of a little different style. The first hoop house cost nearly $25,000 by the time it was completed. The grant money after taxes only covered about a third of the total cost.
“This one will stand here a long time and it is nearly maintenance free, with the only thing we are going to have to change is the cover. They claim that is about every four to five years for a cost of about $800. If it lasts four years, then you are talking $200 a year, which is a pretty minor cost.”
He said if he put up another hoop house it would likely be smaller with hoops that are driven directly into the ground.
“You put your fabric on it, do the ends, grow in it and then take it down in the fall,” Nichols said.
Although he started out selling his harvest at the local farmers’ market, Nichols said he now does only on-farm sales. He said the local farmers’ market is known for having higher prices so very few lower-income people attend.
“I was disenchanted by this because I wanted to put food on people’s tables and I wasn’t doing that,” he said. “Because we are doing only on-farm sales now, that has led to a bunch more changes. We have had to do more advertising and we are purchasing a big sign for out at the end of the road.”
Growing fruits and vegetables wasn’t Nichols’ first career, having worked as a millwright all his life. After moving up into management midway through his career, he wanted to get away from the stress that came with the role.
“I wasn’t happy and I took my pension at 60 years old and decided I was going to do something a little less stressful. That is what I am doing,” he said. “Now my favorite thing is just watching things grow.”
Selling the produce from the farm also allows Nichols to run a small welding, fabrication and repair shop, something he enjoys and that brings additional income to the farm. His brother helps with the greenhouse, freeing up time to work in his shop.
In their first year, Nichols said they started a lot of their plants themselves; transplanting them into the hoop house when the weather was right, but they found that they lost a lot of plants in the transplant process.
“We found that a lot of the plants that we planted in the ground right alongside the transplants were catching up with the other ones. So this year, we planted everything into the ground,” Nichols said. “We are off to a slower start, but we are not going to have the cost. And we have the luxury of going later in the year.”
One challenge they have dealt with is heavy soil, Nichols said. This past spring, they added 51 cubic yards of sand to one of their gardens because the ground was so hard.
“We learned that by accident when we put a bunch of sand in the hoop house because the far end was low. We grew carrots from north to south and the ones on the south end were long and just about perfect in size. The ones on the north end were short and stubby, so that told us right away that we had to loosen the ground up,” he said. “The only thing with sand is it doesn’t hold moisture, so we irrigate like crazy.”
Besides produce, Nichols also raises about 11 cow/calf pairs for beef. He hopes to eventually get the herd to 23 or 24 animals.
Although not officially certified organic, Nichols said both the beef and produce on his farm is raised organically.
“Peggy said that with the land I have here without any additional feed inputs, I can put 23 to 24 head out here. We are working on doing more fencing and dividing into paddocks so we can do rotational grazing,” he said.
For more information about The Nichols Farm, visit http://www.thenicholsfarm.com or find them on Facebook. Nichols said those interested in his produce can find out what is in season by checking their Facebook page or calling 715-212-4555.