We are seekers of light. From the ancient days of setting bonfires atop hills in the darkness of winter to the contemporary fashion of LED Christmas lights turning humble homes into nocturnal gingerbread illuminations, the lure of light in dark times has never faded. Specialists encourage synthetic daylight lamps on our desks to brighten mid-winter moods, while others simply move away during the winter in search of sun and warmth.
A winter exodus is often not an option for farmers, especially those who raise animals, so we must satisfy our need for light through other means. There’s the good, old-fashioned book by the comforting glow of the wood stove as a place to start or the tradition of leaving all the holiday lighting up until the end of January to prolong the enjoyment. There is something about the flickering embers of a fire that connects us with the ancestors or the colorful glint of illuminated home decorations that brings back magical memories for this time of year.
While humans are creatures of light by psychological preference, plants depend on light at a much more visceral level. As the daylight slackened past the equinox, leafy crops in our aquaponic system (a specialized greenhouse where crops grow year-round, powered by nutrient rich water from our tilapia fish) began growing sluggishly, if at all. It was something of an “I give up!” in the plant world, as most of their outdoor compatriots either succumbed to the cold or retreated to the root level with hopes for a new start in the spring. In order for our indoor vegetable friends to have a chance, it was time to order grow lights.
We had hoped to be able to take advantage of new LED technology for grow lights, but this alternative was frightfully cost inhibitive compared with traditional models—it takes a massive pack of little lights to emit enough spectrum to stimulate plant growth. The traditional models waste some energy as heat, but since we would only be using the lights in the wintertime, when the greenhouse required auxiliary heat if the sun was not shining, this could prove a bonus rather than a problem. To best utilize this new resource, we added a timer and light-sensing system that would only turn on the grow lights when not enough sunlight was present to mimic day lengths similar to equinox levels.
Each light services an eight-by-eight foot region, so calculations showed that we would need 10 lights, which arrived through our trusty delivery driver who must often wonder what sort of odd bit of equipment we have ordered this time! It was also tricky installing the lights because they had to be hung over the grow beds, which were already full of plants! But tricky or not, the lights were up and running before Christmas. The first time all 10 were turned on for inspection, the shine was surprisingly intense.
“You could start a tanning spa in here,” Dave our electrician laughed. “Might make more money than with lettuce.”
That first evening was filled with a misty fog, sending the warm, yellowish glow emanating from the greenhouse up into a dome of light above the trees. Surely, the neighbors must be wondering what form of strange spacecraft has landed at that three-crazy-ladies’ farm. What on earth are they up to now?
Jon, our contractor, was driving home that night. As he made his way down Moose Lake Road, he noticed the glowing dome of yellowish light coming from the farm. “I thought for sure the greenhouse was on fire!” he laughed with us after pulling up to the house to chat. “I came around the corner in a great hurry and went, oh, well thank goodness. Looks like Dave got the lights working.”
The plants were the happiest participants of all. Within days, the Napa cabbages began to double in size, while the lettuces perked up their growth in response to the added day length. As seekers of light, these leafy greens and fresh herbs rejoiced at the bounty of energy and have been filling our display cooler and many a salad plate since.
Other appreciators of supplemental light in wintertime are the chickens. While in the summertime we raise chickens for the table as well as for the egg basket, the laying hens are the only chickens that overwinter on our farm. This perky crew of Buff Orpingtons, Silver Laced Wyandottes, colored egg-laying Aruacanas, and feather-footed Light Brahmas transition from their summer quarters of mobile pasturing structures to the barnyard broodering coops or greenhouses. Here, they are protected from the winds and nearby electricity can power heated water buckets.
But the hens, like the lettuce plants, stop producing during the winter months if left to nature’s allotment of sunlight. Hens would spend more time sleeping and less time making your breakfast. Chickens, like people, have a structure in their brain called the pineal body, which is stimulated by sunlight. Take the sunlight away, and we naturally become sleepy. In pioneer days, when lamp oil or candles were expensive, farmers woke with the sunrise and often retired to bed soon after sunset.
It does not require full spectrum sunlight—as needed by the plants—to fool the pineal body in humans or birds, however. Simply adding more light can keep us and hens going long into the night…though not enough dark time and rest can leave both of us cranky and dissatisfied. Adding supplemental light to chicken coops (in tandem with facing coop windows in a southerly bank to catch the most daylight) has long been known to aid winter laying. Mix this with hearty heavy breed chickens, with plenty of bulk and thick feathering, as well as nutritional boosts like chopped liver, pork suet, kitchen scraps, or smashed pumpkins to replace those long-missed insects and green grass, and the ladies rebound from their autumn molt with vigor.
Tending the hens or the lettuce in the evening also gives me a boost of superficial sunshine, a glimpse of healthy, green growth, and a surrounding of contented, clucking hens. We seekers of light find ways to make the most of winter, even with a bit of electrical foolery, to keep going through these long nights. But as we embark into January, we know that the days are beginning to lengthen, if only by a minute or two each day. Still, there is hope that spring will come again, with sunlight, warmth, and a new season of growth. Savor those little moments, for each moment is all we ever have. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. northstarhomestead.com