Non-Electric Greenhouse

This article has been reprinted from the October 8, 1997 issue of The Budget Jerry Dudek, Budget Local Editor

An area man has developed a new method to make modern hydroponic technology work - without using electricity - a system which would allow the Amish to make better use of their land without infringing on or their religious beliefs and customs. Schlabach's Nursery, 3901 C.R. 135, southwest of Walnut Creek, not only created the non-electric hydroponic system which uses pneumatics and natural gas, but he also has built more than a half-dozen of the special greenhouses in the area. It all started three years ago when Schlabach and his wife, the parents of eight children, were looking for work that their oldest children could do at or near home. The Schlabachs have about four acres of land on C.R. 135 and on that property have a small fruit tree nursery, their own garden and some pasture. But there was no room for agricultural expansion and some of the property was not suitable for farming. "Our space was limited to pursue much agriculturally," David Schlabach said. "We became aware we'd have to do something on an intensive scale. That is when we started considering Greenhouse possibilities." Historically, it was always necessary to use electricity in order to have a greenhouse. Schlabach changed all that. At first, Schlabach became interested in hydroponic gardening systems, a method of growing plants without soil, through books and literature. He later attended a grower's workshop seminar sponsored by CropKing Inc., a hydroponic company located in Seville. CropKing sells a greenhouse package complete with equipment and growing supplies. Schlabach had to do some convincing to get CropKing to take notice of his interest in building a greenhouse, because the Schlabachs didn't have electricity. CropKing felt it would not be possible or practical to attempt hydroponics without the automation of electric timers, fans and computerized sensors. But after several discussions, CropKing agreed to eliminate all the electrical motors, solenoids and components in the package it sold to Schlabach. Air motors, thermostats and manual controls replaced them. Now CropKing is gung ho about the future of non-electrical greenhouses. "There is significant interest in hydroponic vegetable production among the Amish communities throughout the country as it offers a way of keeping their children involved in profitable, farm-related businesses that don't require the large amounts of land that conventional agriculture does," Dan Brentlinger, president of CropKing, said.

David Schlabach invented some brilliant and ingenious ways of making modern hydroponic technology work, without infringing on or compromising Amish customs," he added. The Schlabach system also has practical implications for other parts of the world, especially Third World and other poor countries. Schlabach put in a bid on installing one of his non-electric systems in American Samoa and considering building one in Romania for the Christian Aid Ministry. In 1995, Schlabach built two greenhouses, one in Shreve and one in Apple Creek. Last fall, six non-electric greenhouses were built in the area. Interest in the non-electrical systems has come from as far away as Delaware. Schlabach is the first to admit that hydroponics is not for everyone and it won't solve family and cultural problems of a shortage of farmland, but it does have its possibilities. "The question we are always asked is, 'Why hydroponics instead of soil?' Well, first of all, you can grow a lot more in a smaller area of land. And its high quality, salable food. Secondly, at our place, we don't have the proper soil and with hydroponics, we can utilize an area that previously wasn't any use to us agriculturally," Schlabach said. "It is not a get-rich-quick enterprise, but provides a steady income most of the year as well as giving opportunity to work together as a family in a clean, pleasant atmosphere."

This year's crop is tomato, but in other growing seasons, Schlabach's greenhouse has produced peppers, cucumbers, Chinese greens and lettuce. Schlabach's greenhouse is 30 feet wide and 124 feet long, covered with two layers of plastic. Air is blown between the two layers with a small 12 volt fan. Most of the mechanical functions relate to cooling the greenhouse and providing fresh air. One end of the greenhouse has two four-foot fans which are operated by an air motor, which is valve activated by an air thermostat in the center of the greenhouse. The second fan is activated by a second thermostat set at a slightly higher temperature level in case the first fan cannot adequately handle the cooling. Air is drawn from a vent along the back of the greenhouse or through a small louvered vent above the front door. Along the back of the greenhouse is a wet wall cooling pad over which water is circulated on hot days for about six hours. The water circulation is run by a small pump. A 300,000 BTU natural gas boiler heats the greenhouse. The feeding system consists of fertilizer injectors, tanks, valves, feed-line dripper emitters and small tubes to each plant. A nutrient solution is also added to the system. With a hydroponic system, the growing season is a bit unusual, but for Schlabach, it works out quite well. His next growing season will begin in late December and his crop will be ready after 100 perfect days of weather. The Schlabachs harvest two hydroponic crops per year. When the tomatoes are ripe, it is picking season, usually every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. "It is my favorite work," Schlabach admitted. "It doesn't take that long and it is pleasant to find those pinkish globes among the leafy stalks."

The hydroponic season fits in well with Schlabach's primary business, his nursery. The 44-year-old, who has lived in the area his entire life, leases two acres of land just north of S.R. 39 near Chestnut Ridge School. There he raises a variety of fruit trees, mostly by using the technique of grafting, something which his late father, Roy L. Schlabach, learned from Amos Mast's grandfather. Schlabach has an apple tree in his yard, which produces 60 varieties of apples! The move to hydroponics, Schlabach said, has allowed him to diversify. "We now have three ways for our major income: the nursery, the hydroponic dealership and erecting greenhouses. Diversity is security to the farmer," he said.

Greenhouse Farming