In our New Agtivist interviews, we talk to people who are working to change this country’s f’ed-up food system in inspiring ways. 

Chris Chaisson in front of a house with solar panelsBasement player: Chris Chaisson outside a house being retrofitted with a root cellar.Photo: Erik Hoffner

Squash on shelvesGourd yourself: Storage bins in a root cellarPhoto: Whole Farm ServicesImagine if trucks full of food stopped driving into your town or city every night. Or if the electricity grid went down for a while during the winter.

What would you eat?

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Even those of us who grow lots of our own food might have to resort to factory-filled cans, victims of supermarket shelves emptied of fresh food in a manner of days.

But Glenn Beck-style pseudo-survivalism, or peak-oil-fueled fears aside, those who want to eat local just during the cold months also face challenges. In most places mid-winter, even committed locavores’ gardens are frostbitten and food co-ops are stocking foreign fruits and vegetables.

To keep produce fresh in the most low-carbon manner, people in the northeastern United States call on Chris Chaisson. His company, Vermont-based Whole Farm Services, offers farmers, gardeners, and communities an array of very old-school — now very hip — crop storage services. From root cellars to ice houses, these technologies may just become integral to a sustainable food future.

Q. How did you get into food and farming?

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A. Both sides of my family came from agricultural backgrounds — as with most Yankees and French Canadians. I grew up in Western Massachusetts gardening, keeping bees, and running a small neighborhood farm stand with my mother’s parents. We canned, kept roots in our cellar (not a proper root cellar, though), and extracted lots of honey every year.

My father got me into food at age 10 — I’d help at the restaurants he managed — and then by age 12, I was catering with him. In high school, picking tobacco and sweet corn was another way to make money, and I also worked at several pizzerias in Northampton and Martha’s Vineyard until age 20. On the Vineyard I got very interested in farming and worked at Morning Glory Farm, Solviva, and several nurseries.

Those early experiences were key to my understanding of food, from garden to plate, and have allowed me to get a grasp of everything that happens between them.

Q. What interested you in crop storage?

A. As a stone mason and a builder with a background in agriculture, it came naturally. I’m a lover of masonry and its ability to store heat and cold in its mass. I work the inverse of most builders, who are trying to capture heat. I want to capture cold and keep it through the summer.

And at some point I really got blown away by the reality that we only have three to five days’ worth of food available in supermarkets in the event of catastrophe. But I also like the seasonality of it, of having fresh food from one’s own plot or a local farm, in the middle of winter when the norm is scary-looking trucked-in produce.

For the regional food movement and next-generation farm and food infrastructure to work, we need to incorporate crop storage. This new infrastructure can be totally revolutionary, including renewable energy and green design, allowing the whole food system to reduce its carbon footprint while offering more food security and stronger local and regional economies based on agriculture — a truly regenerative industry.

Q. Can you describe what a ‘retrofit’ is?

Framed-out root cellarA simple storage system for food.Photo: Courtesy of Whole Farm ServicesA. In a residential basement retrofit, we usually reframe a portion using lightweight masonry materials and rot-resistant woods, and incorporate passive and/or active venting systems. This is the cheapest way to create a sheltered space that can avoid temperature swings from ambient air and also be safe from rodents. Last month, we retrofitted a basement for a couple who have been wanting to do this for many years. We framed a small portion of it, insulated the walls to R-40 and the ceiling to R-60, put up masonry board, added a ventilation system, and installed shelving.

Q. You also build traditional, stand-alone root cellars, too?

A. Yes. Stand-alone structures are actually better for food storage, and we are focusing on using ferro-cement to build vaulted spaces, which helps in terms of load and reducing damage from water.

Q. What’s an ice house?

A. It’s a structure made for storing large amounts of ice, which traditionally is cut from ponds or rivers. The ice keeps through the summer and is usually gone by September. Ice-making only works where the temps are consistently below 20 degrees — that provides the right ice density. We’re doing a project in Ontario that is a stand-alone farm-scale root cellar that will include an ice chamber for keeping the main cold space cool during the summer. It will also include a cold-water bath from the ice melt water which will be for used for storing ciders, milk, and other beverages.

Q. What else do you do besides crop storage?

A. I am actively involved in a botanical company called Wild Branch Botanicals, where we are exploring how to grow superfoods and high nutritive foods in mountain climates. I grow medicinal herbs and foods and develop products. I get excited about the symmetry between forestry and agriculture and where the new world of regenerative health and wellness will bring us both in terms of relations to non-humans and also in terms of global peace.

Chris ChaissonChris ChaissonPhoto: Erik HoffnerQ. Where do you get inspiration for your work?

A. I look to Native Americans. They were especially skilled agro-foresters who had many skills only just now becoming understood. I also look to the works of the many skilled farmers and masons, like my grandfather, who knew how to build for 100+ years.

Q. Can you share some good resources on root cellaring?

A. There are many, and now many are popping up to meet the needs of the Transition Towns movement and others. Mike and Nancy Bubel’s work has been very solid and thorough.

Q. Name a book you keep returning to for guidance.

A. Eric Sloane’s An Age of Barns, which turned me on to the craft of the old timers.

Q. What’s your earliest food memory?

A. Strawberry shortcake in the June church fairs around my childhood home.

Q. Do you have a junk-food weakness?

A. Popcorn. My grandma helped start a popcorn company when I was a kid and I have grown quite addicted since then, especially seasoned with nutritional yeast, garlic, and cayenne.

Q. What keeps you up at night?

A. The design challenges involved in creating a better food and farm system!

It needs to happen now, and farmers need more incentive to grow their enterprises. Until farmers get the same rewards as financial leaders, we won’t have the innovation and imperative to make the necessary adaptation required for true food security. At the same time, I don’t feel anyone actually needs that much money.

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