Minocqua couple takes small-scale food production to a new level
Story and photos by Lori Adler
A number of years ago, Nancy Dobrinski of Minocqua started to become concerned about food safety. Worried about the freshness of the food she was buying, the many recalls and the onset of genetically modified foods (GMOs), she started thinking about ways to take more control of what she was feeding her family. Though she and her husband, Chris, live on a small two-acre property, she began exploring her options.
“I started wondering how much food could I produce right here,” Nancy explained, adding that she didn’t have much of a background in gardening. “My grandparents had a veggie garden,” she said, but as her days were spent with more important childhood activities like playing, Nancy “wasn’t really interested in learning anything.” Consequently, all of her current knowledge has been gleaned from research and trial and error.
Not really concerned about a yard, Nancy and Chris determined the best location for the garden was on the front side of the house. Though there were some failures, the garden flourished and quickly grew to its current size of about 450 square feet of raised beds. Nancy chose raised beds for many reasons, but one of the best reasons is no compaction of the soil since no one is walking on the beds. A slice of soil taken from a high-producing garden will, “resemble chocolate cake,” which only happens if the soil never compacts, she said. The raised beds also help her start the garden earlier in the year than a garden directly in the ground as the spring sun, shining on the sides and tops of the beds warms them more quickly. Sometimes, she can plant as much as a month earlier than in a traditional garden.
The garden is surrounded by a fence that is about 5-feet high. Though not generally considered high enough to keep the deer out, Nancy explained that when there are structures, such as her large raised beds, the deer will not jump the fence because they cannot determine if they have enough room to land. The garden is weeded by hand as Nancy does not use herbicides or pesticides. Control of all weeds or pests is done by mechanical means. This includes the fence line, and other non flammable areas of her yard, where she uses a torch to burn the weeds before they send seeds into the air.
The soil was decent when Nancy first started the garden, but it was sandy and desperately needed compost. So Nancy did what anyone would do in that situation. “I got chickens!” she remarked, explaining that chicken manure is one of the best things to add to soil for vegetable production.
Nancy has 10 laying hens in her flock, but she also grows broiler chickens (for meat) most years. The lean-to style chicken coop and run is attached to the garage on the side of the house. Though chickens will sometimes lay their eggs in unexpected places, they generally use nest boxes. The nest boxes for the Dobrinki’s chickens are built so that they protrude into the garage, allowing Nancy to retrieve eggs from inside the garage, which is especially convenient during the winter months. As there are many predators in the Northwoods, the Dobrinskis created the “Fort Knox of chicken coops,” referring to the small gauge fencing that surrounds the coop and run. The fencing is also set into the ground along the perimeter and over the top of the entire coop and run.
As if a large garden and a flock of chickens weren’t enough to keep her busy, Nancy is always exploring new concepts in gardening. One of those ideas came from an article she read online, which she and Chris recently put into place. It is a relatively simple bucket system that Nancy uses to grow tomatoes and peppers. She says the stronger heat generated by the concrete patio allows the plants in her bucket system grow larger and faster than the ones in the garden in the front yard.
Chris helped design the system and said it was quite inexpensive to build, adding, “I think the entire system cost less than the timer we use for watering.” A series of 5-gallon pails, each inside another pail, line the patio. The inner bucket contains holes in the bottom, while the outer bucket contains the water. A system of hoses connects each bucket to the outside faucet and provides water at intervals regulated by a timer. A disk of plastic on the top of each bucket, with a hole just big enough for the plant to grow through, provides warmth to the soil while preventing moisture loss. The buckets require no weeding or maintenance, making it the “easiest garden I have,” Nancy says.
Inexpensive and easy is exactly opposite of Nancy’s other gardening endeavor, her hydroponic garden. The garden was both expensive to build and difficult to start, but it is one of the most fascinating aspects of Nancy’s food production efforts. Located in the basement, the plants are grown without soil. The pots in which the plants grow are filled with small reusable clay balls. The balls give the plant’s roots something to grip and provide stability for its structure. The pots are placed in special trays, and an automatic watering system floods the trays several times a day. The water used is fortified with the nutrients needed for plant growth. The water pH levels and nutrient concentration are monitored with adjustments made as needed.
The plants grow in the hydroponic garden somewhat effortlessly due to the automation of the system, but setting up the system was both costly and difficult. Though there are many articles on low-cost homemade ways to create a hydroponic garden, Nancy wanted to ensure success so the Dobrinskis invested in a premade system which cost about $5,000. In addition to the cost, Nancy explained that while there are a lot of supplies available for hydroponic production, “most of it is for marijuana growers,” adding that it was difficult to determine what materials and nutrients to use for simple vegetable production. The hydroponic garden produces vegetables year-round, including root vegetables. A fan running in the basement aids in pollination.
While Nancy takes care of planting, harvesting and maintaining the gardens, Chris is in charge of watering as well as coming up with ways to automate the processes. Though Nancy prefers more manual methods, she does acknowledge that they are getting older, and Chris wants to make sure they can both continue to handle the upkeep. “I’m the pilgrim and he’s progress,” Nancy said. Chris noted that his automation of some of the daily tasks allows Nancy the opportunity to explore other ways to produce food such as growing mushrooms on logs, baking sourdough bread from scratch and brewing water kombucha (an ancient fermented drink).
Food production is a never-ending learning process for Nancy, who said she’s always looking for something new to try. And though she still has to go to the grocery store, she produces a great deal of food on just 2 acres, proving that it is possible to grow healthy chemical-free food on even the smallest of scales.
Nancy said control over her food supply is something she feels the need to share; she is happy to pass on her experience and knowledge to anyone who asks and is more than willing to help anybody get started, adding, “I just want people to know that anyone can do this.”
Nancy has been asked to give presentations to local community groups, sharing her many experiences, trials and triumphs, and hopes to continue to help educate people about food production. Anyone wishing to have Nancy present to their local group, want to take her up on her offer to help them get started, or would just like a tour can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.