Colored Pig Fountain

The following essay by Farmer John is reprinted from the Farm News: Week 4, July 22, 1995

When the first semi load of greenhouse parts arrived last December, I looked in the trailer at the numerous skids of steel and the twenty or so crates and barrels. I knew then that my whole winter was going to be about deciphering blueprints and identifying mysterious pieces of metal. As we were unloading, I heard a horn. I went to see who had driven in. It was my Subaru that was honking; no one was in it. The car just sat in the garage, honking its horn. It’s a greenhouse omen, I thought, but I don’t know what it means. Does it mean a propagation party is beginning? Does it mean there is danger lurking in that bill of sale?

The greenhouse was basically an enormous kit. When you see it at the open house, you might say “it sure is big.” Then you might blurt, “did it need to be that big?”

The economy of sizing a greenhouse is a little like the savings that you can get from a box of laundry soap; the bigger the box, the less you pay per unit of soap. With the greenhouse, the ends of the structure are what cost most of the money. That’s where the lower louvered vents are, the upper gable vent, the doors, the exhaust fans, the heaters, the evaporative cooling system, and the Lexan sheathing. If we had made the whole greenhouse just two feet long, it would have probably cost 3/4 of what our 84 ft greenhouse cost. The longer I made it, the cheaper it became per square foot. (This sounds like one of those arguments for building more nuclear power plants.)

The project cost $32,000 by the time it was completed – financed by cash flow, loans and CSA donations (you guys contributed $2100). I felt uncomfortable getting involved in such a massive and expensive project in light of the marginal economics of running a CSA farm, but, since we had to have a greenhouse to even stay in business, I opted for the greenhouse that would facilitate our operation long term. It requires minimal upkeep, protects our seedlings from extremes of hot and cold, provides a backup system in case of furnace failure, alerts us in case of power failure or excess heat or cold, and it provides adequate air movement to minimize fungal diseases. It has a bank of thermostats that synchronize the various functions. These aren’t fluffy concerns: one ventilation or heating glitch in a greenhouse for a few hours can wipe out a whole year’s crop.

In order to get the project done in time to raise our spring seedlings, the subterranean work had to be completed before the ground froze solid in the winter. This hard freeze usually occurs in late November, but we had a weather reprieve, and last winter at Christmas time we were backhoeing trenches for water, electric, drainage and gas lines.

An existing cluster of underground valves was the most logical place to hook up the new water line to the greenhouse. I had installed these valves in 1976 to serve the water needs of our cattle and hogs. The valves gave me the option to turn the various watering stations off deep underground, even when the ground was frozen. One valve serviced the hog waterer, the second served the combination hog and cattle waterer, the third was for a colored hog fountain. Besides drinking a lot of water, pigs need to soak in water (or mud) to stay cool. I intended to build a fountain with colored lights for our hogs. Since I could see the hogs from my bedroom window, I planned to turn the fountain and lights on from my bed and watch the pigs romp in the colored water. The lights were going to be purple, yellow and magenta. Even though I knew that a hog fountain needed four lights, I never determined the color of the fourth light. I also never decided whether each light should have its own switch, or whether they should all be on the same switch; I was partial to the individual switches. I did not consider dimmers. I only got the valve and water line installed – never built the fountain.

Our plumber persuaded me to put plastic fittings five feet down in the ground, where these valves met the water line. They were “cheaper than galvanized”, he assured me. He was sure we wouldn’t have any trouble with them. He didn’t know that 20 years later, the livestock would be gone and we’d be hooking up the third valve to a greenhouse.

While we poked around this winter with the backhoe, one of those plastic fittings started to leak. It was December 31. Freezing weather was due to arrive that night – 0 to 10 degrees. The stakes were high; if the leak wasn’t repaired and the hole backfilled before the hard frost came that night, there would be no water to the greenhouse until spring. In addition, we would have to shut off the water to the whole barn/office complex for the rest of the winter; it was all part of the same system. This would have greatly inconvenienced Angelic Organics.

I plunged into the five foot trench as it slowly filled with water and ooze. Beneath the topsoil, our clay, when wet, is a sticky, gooey paste. I bailed water and mud, and proceeded, with crow bar and spade, to slime through this muck towards the broken “cost saving” connector. The clay tenaciously gripped my boots as I tried to maneuver in the trench; occasionally a boot came off in the mud. I reached the first valve. I slowly removed the contraption of clamps and fittings and pipes to reach the next complex of plumbing, where I would hopefully reach the leak. I gradually dismantled the whole intricate web of valves, including more than 20 hose clamps. Much of it had to be taken apart under icy water. (We have some of this struggle on video tape – me soaked with cold mud, clutching rusty valves, saying disgusted things about the plumber. Given the proposed new standards for decency on television, I won’t show you this video at our open house.)

The first valve in the arrangement would have been the easiest to hook the greenhouse to, but that valve would serve the waterer our cow would drink from, if we ever get a cow. Besides, I had to locate the second valve anyway, because it was leaking. When I finally got the second valve repaired, it was relatively accessible without snorkeling equipment; it would have been far easier than the third valve to hook the greenhouse to. I peaked over the edge of the trench at the faded red hog and cattle waterer sitting at the edge of the barnyard. I looked down at the exposed second valve. It would serve the waterer our herd of cattle would drink from, if we ever get a herd of cattle. The third valve was almost impossible to reach, buried as it was in a wall of clay behind the first two valves. But what if we get a cow? What if we get a bunch of cows? I looked over the edge of the trench again. I sort of saw a cow. I sort of saw a herd of cows. I sort of heard the hooves of cows clomping towards the waterer. The cows mooed softly. I gazed at the brooding western sky. The sun had disappeared into a soup of black clouds. Wind skittered by, tinged with arctic air. I grabbed a clod of red clay; it was already hard with frost. Did I really want to risk a winter without water to our barn and greenhouse for these cows? Over and over, I slammed a four foot prybar into the wall of muck. Chunks of sludge gradually released into the puddle at my feet, glopping new layers of mud onto my coveralls and my tools. As darkness engulfed the farm, the slimy outline of the third valve emerged.

Well after dark that New Year’s Eve night, as the winds were turning frigid, I tightened the last connector on the third valve. I ran to the greenhouse site, opened a hydrant. Water whooshed. This is different from the fountain I planned, I thought. This fountain will be the color of plants.