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Geothermal greenhouse and community garden coming to Nakusp school

OFHC will lead the project and be the primary manager of the facility
Nakusp Secondary School. (File photo)

After over a year of planning, the Old Firehall Collective Society (OFHC) has the go-ahead to bring a geothermal greenhouse and community garden to the Nakusp Secondary School grounds.

The project aims to provide year-long access to fresh food and a “living science lab” for students, said Rosemary Hughes, who sits on the OFHC’s board of directors.

“We’re really excited about it,” she said.

“There is a population here that would do really well if they had access to fresh fruits and fresh vegetables all year.”

The Old Fire Hall Collective is an all-volunteer organization created to restore the agricultural sector in Nakusp and area, and promote self-sufficiency in food production.

“This is a region that once produced up to 95 per cent of its food locally before the flooding of Arrow Lakes to create a reservoir,” reads its brochure. “Now, it has fewer than a dozen market gardens and farm producers to feed the region.”

Years of work have brought the collective to where it is today: an agricultural and food hub in the old Nakusp fire hall building, offering a commercial kitchen, garden equipment rentals, resource library, community programming, farmers’ and crafters’ markets, and a rental space.

The greenhouse project fits right into its vision, which is aimed at sustainable farming and access to healthy, local food.

“Individuals on fixed incomes and the vulnerable population will also benefit from this project,” said Hughes. “If we can provide fresh lettuce in December, then we’ve accomplished what we want with this project.”

In October 2023, OFHC and the School District 10 Board of Education signed a joint-use operation agreement.

OFHC will lead the project and be the primary manager of the facility. The SD 10 board is a charitable organization, and is accepting donations on behalf of OFHC. Donors will receive a tax receipt.

Greenhouse in the snow

A geothermal greenhouse uses the earth to regulate temperatures inside the structure.

“I stumbled upon it when I was doing research on greenhouses,” said Hughes.

Soil underground stays at a stable temperature – warmer than outside air in winter, and cooler in summer. Air from inside the greenhouse can be channelled via a fan through underground pipes. In summer, this offers a cooling effect. In winter, it warms the greenhouse enough to allow for year-round growing conditions.

“The fact that you can grow year-round is the key, especially when you’re trying to address food security,” said Hughes. “That is absolutely the key.”

The greenhouse will be 100 feet long by 17 feet wide. Pipes are set eight feet into the ground, with part of the greenhouse built four feet below ground. A ‘rocket stove’ will provide backup heat if needed.

The project will cost about $170,000 to get off the ground – $46,000 for the greenhouse, $35,000 for the underground pipes, plus the cost of excavation and outfitting the greenhouse. Fencing and establishing the community garden are also included in the price.

“I’m so hoping to be in the ground before winter so that we can have tomatoes at Christmas,” said Hughes.

With a $100,000 grant from United Way, the collective was able to put down a deposit with Greenhouse in the Snow, a company based in Nebraska. Designed by Russ Finch over 35 years, the system has been refined to create environments that support citrus trees all winter long.

The franchise expanded to British Columbia, with a demonstration greenhouse located on a small regenerative farm in Armstrong. Kits are manufactured in and shipped out from Vernon.

The greenhouse package arrives with all the supplies; it just needs to be put together. The collective hopes to bring together community volunteers to get the greenhouse standing.

Once completed, there is also the matter of sustaining operations. Someone will need to be on site four hours a day, 365 days a year, to ensure everything is running smoothly.

“The first priority is to have enough income to pay people to take care of the greenhouse. The next priority is the vulnerable population having access to food,” said Hughes.

Businesses and restaurants have expressed interest in purchasing produce grown in the greenhouse, and a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program could be a fruitful option, said Hughes. There is also opportunity for summer and winter kids’ camps and greenhouse tours as a way to bring in funds.

Hughes said OFHC was able to raise close to half a million dollars when it was repurposing and renovating the old fire hall; it is actively applying for grants to keep things running, too. West Coast Seeds has generously donated seeds to get things growing.

After funds go towards sustaining operations, OFHC would like to see the produce going out to folks who need it most.

“Our goal is food security for the community,” Hughes said.

The collective can process and preserve the bounty in its commercial kitchen in the old fire hall building, making healthy, local food even more accessible year-round.

The next steps are obtaining development and building permits.

“It’s hard for me to contain my excitement but I have to be practical,” said Hughes. “There’s lots to do before it’s in the ground. But we keep the faith and keep on working.”

And wouldn’t it be something, she said, to one day eat an orange homegrown in Nakusp.