Food Farm to launch high tech root cellar

They say that necessity is the mother of invention -- and John Fisher-Merritt has surely discovered the key. A longtime farmer, Fisher-Merritt has made a living off sustainable farming on his 200-acre plot of land in Wrenshall for the past eight ...

They say that necessity is the mother of invention -- and John Fisher-Merritt has surely discovered the key.
A longtime farmer, Fisher-Merritt has made a living off sustainable farming on his 200-acre plot of land in Wrenshall for the past eight years.
Recently, he invented a high-tech version of one of the oldest farming concepts on the books -- the root cellar.
And because he and his family make their living at farming, the newly erected structure promises to be a godsend for the future viability of their already-thriving business.
The Fisher-Merritt family is the proprietor of a home-based business known simply as the "Food Farm," selling community shares in the farm that yields ongoing deliveries of fresh produce throughout the summer. With the purchase of a share, the holder is entitled to weekly deliveries of fresh vegetables off the farm for approximately 18 weeks throughout the summer and fall. The Fisher-Merritts also grow chickens and turkeys for their shareholders.
And now, the family is optimistic that their new root cellar operation will pave the way for winter shareholders as well.
Fisher-Merritt said the root cellar has been in the concept stage for "at least five years, maybe more. I'd been thinking about it for a long time, because we were so successful with storing vegetables in the little root cellar in our house."
Their original root cellar was merely a corner in their basement, 5 feet by 9 feet, that utilized a dryer vent with a fan in it that they could turn on in the wintertime to bring in outside air and drop the temperature of the room to just above freezing.
"I would go down there every day and look at the temperature and turn the fan on or off, whatever was needed," he said.
The system was totally dependent on human supervision, however, and the storage capability of the family basement was limited.
So Fisher-Merritt began to think about it.
"I thought if we had something that would electronically turn those fans on and off, we could probably have pretty much an ideal situation year-round," he said.
What he came up with is a building 24 feet by 52 feet overall, with 8-inch walls of poured concrete, 10-foot ceilings and doors 6 inches thick, filled with Styrofoam.
The root cellar, which can be divided off into four separate temperature zones, uses the ambient temperature of the air and the earth for heating and cooling to maintain optimal temperatures for vegetable storage.
The main cooling part of the system comes from the temperature of the earth.
Most of the walls of the building are below ground, and they are insulated with Styrofoam down to within about two feet of their base. To keep the ground from warming up from below, they have it insulated four feet out from the foundation with horizontally placed, 2-inch sheets of Styrofoam.
"That way the ground around it doesn't heat up in the summertime, and it is constantly absorbing any heat that comes in," said Fisher-Merritt.
"Then in the wintertime, it doesn't freeze all the way down, either. The earth's ambient temperature is about 45 degrees, so that remains pretty constant because we have the ground insulated. If we had it insulated all the way to the ground, we wouldn't be getting that cooling capacity except through the floor."
The other way that the Fisher-Merritts keep the root cellar cool is with the help of a special fan operated by a temperature control and monitoring system that comes on and blows cooler air through a motorized damper that opens up any time the temperature is cooler outside than in.
Installation of the ventilation system cost around $3,000.
The Fisher-Merritts store potatoes in one of the root cellar's coldest rooms, and squash is stored around 45 degrees. Carrots, rutabagas, parsnips, beets and cabbage like temperatures close to freezing, about 34 or 35 degrees.
The packing shed is where they put up their delivery orders. It is located at one end of the cellar and is 20 feet by 24 feet. Fisher-Merritt's middle son designed special tables that pull out on either end like a dining room table to facilitate packing large amounts of vegetables at one time.
"We bring things in from the fields and cool everything immediately in water, except for peas, basil and green beans, which are more perishable," said Fisher-Merritt.
The cellar's potato room is fitted with vertical storage bins 2 feet wide by several feet high "so you don't just have an unmanageable pile with waste from sloped sides," said Fisher-Merritt.
In the old cellar, the family could only store about a ton of potatoes and around 1,000 pounds of carrots, but in the new building they have the potential for 20,000 pounds of carrots and more than that of potatoes, so it's expanded their potential by a lot.
The root cellar was partially completed last summer, and the Fisher-Merritts have carrots and potatoes that were stored there last season that are still crunchy and fresh.
Actual construction of the high-tech root cellar building was done by Daniel Koda. It took a couple of months to complete.
The walls and floor were poured by Tony Sheda, and the wood for the beams, studs and floor joists was cut off the Fisher-Merritts' property and that of their neighbors. The building did not simply stop there, however.
"I realized it would be a waste to have a huge basement and not have a building on top of it," Fisher-Merritt said.
And so he designed an upstairs addition over the root cellar to house his wife's art studio, a kitchen, a bathroom and a 24-foot great room for classes and meetings.
Cost of the entire project came in at around $30,000.
"That may seem like a lot, but you have to look at it this way," said Fisher-Merritt. "Over a period of years, if we were to refrigerate everything, it would be almost cost-prohibitive. Besides, this is our whole livelihood."

Wendy Johnson is the editor of the Cloquet Journal, a Murphy McGinnis Newspaper.

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