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Reality Check Needed (Broiler House To Greenhouse Conversion)

 
Posts: 9
Location: MD Eastern Shore, Zone 7B
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I've been daydreaming about a project for a little while, and I've got to the point where I either need to turn the daydreams into planning and research, or just let the idea fall by the wayside, because otherwise I'm just tormenting myself with wanting it. But I can't be objective about the idea because I'm super excited about it! So I thought this might be a good place to get some feedback to help me decide what to do.

I really, really, really want to grow citrus. And as I have no intention of moving anytime soon, I want to grow it here in Maryland.

I'm inspired by two things: 1) the taste of the Valencia oranges I purchased at a groveside stand in Florida two years ago, which was so far beyond anything I've ever purchased from a grocery store that I can't even eat grocery store oranges anymore, and 2) various youtube videos I've seen of other people growing citrus in greenhouses, most notably Russ Finch's Greenhouse In The Snow.

I have toyed with the idea of buying one of his greenhouse kits 'someday', but it probably would not work for me here. I'm located between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean - we are right at sea level on very swampy ground. If I dug four feet down for his sunken geothermal greenhouse I would end up with a pond! I could probably hunt around and find a patch of ground that might be high enough, but I really don't have any money to buy the land OR the greenhouse kit, so I thought it was little more than a pipe dream.

However...

I live on my family's farm, which was started by my great-grandfather and currently belongs to my mother. Eventually half of it will come to me. My dad farmed crops (the land has been rented out since he passed), and my mom raised chickens commercially for 35 years. Unfortunately there have been so many new mega-farms cropping up around here lately that Mom's little farm can't compete. And last year the company she grew for told all the growers with older farms (like my mom) that they have to make certain upgrades to their buildings or the company won't place chickens in them anymore. The upgrades would've cost about $300,000. Mom was close to retirement already, and I have zero interest in raising chickens commercially, so there was no point in going into that kind of debt. Mom's last flock went out in December and now the buildings are just standing idle.

A couple of weeks ago I watched a youtube video by a man in Canada who wanted to grow cherries, apricots, and table grapes in zone 4. He experimented with several different types of greenhouses, and eventually converted a loafing barn from a defunct dairy into an indoor orchard where he was able to grow zone 8 fruits. My immediate thought was about mom's empty chicken houses. If he could get zone 8 in an old barn while in zone 4, could I get zone 9 or 10 in an old chicken house here in zone 7?

I've talked it over with my mom and she's fine with me experimenting with one of the chicken houses, since she's not doing anything else with them. But it's a HUGE experiment. And undoubtedly an expensive one that I would have to get a grant or loan to help pay for. And it would all be on me. I have lots of daydream ideas, but my head's pretty much in the clouds so I need someone whose feet are still firmly planted on the ground to look at those ideas and poke some holes in them, so to speak. I need to know if I'm letting my enthusiasm overrule my common sense.

It would be a lot of work. The litter needs to be cleaned out to the ground, though I can get someone else to do it for free in exchange for the litter (which they can sell). The roof tin needs to be removed and replaced with greenhouse plastic (which would probably be expensive). The ceiling needs to be removed to open up to the roof. The walls need to be power-washed and sanitized with bleach. The fans would need to be sanitized as well so that I can run ventilation in the summer. The trusses and walls need to be painted white to reflect light so that I get as much light as possible in the space. The whole house would need to be rewired because right now all the electrical stuff runs through the ceiling - and a lot of the lights would be unnecessary anyway.

I'd probably have to spread something to balance the pH in the ground due to high ammonia levels. I might have to till as the soil is probably very compacted - and I have no idea what was done to prep the site for building ages ago, so it might be our natural clay under the litter or there might be a lot of sand if that was used to level the site. I'd definitely have to bring in some amended topsoil to raise the trees up six inches or so since our soil doesn't drain well. That in itself could get pretty expensive too.

The chicken house is already insulated, but I'd probably build some kind of earthen walls (hyperadobe?) to make a raised planting area along the south wall to add more thermal mass. I might uncover the windows on that side to let more light and heat in as well. Unfortunately the chicken houses run east - west, which is not optimal for greenhouses, but that is what it is.

As far as the space I'd be working in - the chicken house that's in the best shape is 25 years old and just had a new foundation put in a few years ago. It's 550 ft long and 42 feet wide, but I don't know if that's the outer dimensions or the inner dimensions of the building. Either way it's a lot of space to grow in. The roof is peaked, but with the trusses in the way I'd only have a height of about 8 - 10 feet for trees. It's not as much height as I'd like, but it's enough for dwarf trees if I keep them pruned. And having trees that height would be easier to harvest, so that's not necessarily a bad thing.

My plan would be to do planting in phases. I would start in what used to be the brood room, which is a little bigger than 1/3 of the whole house. (I'd probably remove the tin roof for just that part of it to start with, to save on initial costs in case things didn't work out.) I'd build a pool inside (to add thermal mass) and fill it with rainwater collected from the roof (there's a well, but our water has a lot of iron in it so I'd only use that for backup). I'd plant maybe 25 trees to begin with - lemons, limes, key limes, grapefruit, juice oranges, blood oranges, navel oranges, mandarins, calamondins, kumquats, pomegranates. Plus a few grapevines along the north wall for seedless table grapes, and maybe some different varieties of raspberries as well. Maybe some goji berries and currants.

It would probably take at least two years for the trees to get established and fruiting well enough to have anything to take to market. So I'd need to figure out some fast-growing crops that I could start in the meantime. So far I haven't found anything that appeals to me. Exotic melons, maybe? Older heirloom varieties of tomatoes? Armenian cucumbers? Pineberries? Asparagus beans? I would want something that isn't just the same things everyone else at the market is selling, and the local farmer's markets already have the usual glut of tomatoes, kale, strawberries, etc. But it would need to be something that isn't so out there that nobody buys it because they don't know what to do with it.

I would have a longer growing season than many other farmers, though. I could maybe plan my growing season around theirs and sell when there would be less competition, so that's an option too. I could do early tomatoes and cucumbers and be switching my focus to something else right when everyone else's tomatoes started coming on.

At any rate, eventually over the course of the next few years I'd keep expanding as the first section got established and started producing. In the second phase I'd start planting in the next third of the house, and in the third phase I'd finish up planting trees through the last part of the house. I'd eventually want to have strawberry and pineapple guava, honeyberries, star fruit, kiwi, passionfruit, ginger, Buddha's hand, dwarf bananas, avocados, pineapples, finger limes, different varieties of citrus, I don't know what all else. Anything I can get to grow in an unheated greenhouse, really. Start with the core things that I know will sell, like lemons, limes, and oranges, and once those are up and running I can experiment and play around with trying other things.

If it did well I'd expand into the second chicken house, which is 500 ft long and 40 ft wide.

Further down the line - for someday - I can see myself putting in a commercial kitchen for making jams and jellies and candied citrus out of anything that didn't sell at market. Maybe even baked goods. (I'd have to hire someone to do the cooking, as it is not my thing at all. And I can't do it out of my home kitchen because I have dogs and cats, so I'd need a separate space.)

Once I had enough production, maybe in five to ten years, I could expand beyond just the farmer's market and start selling wholesale to grocery stores and restaurants. I could also put in a market stand here on the property - we get a lot of traffic on this road as we're right next to a busy private school, so even if I just opened from 2pm to dusk I'd probably get good foot traffic. And we're just off the main highway and easy to find.

As far as pricing: this is still a mystery to me. But it's a big piece of the pie, and something would require a lot of thought before I could move forward on anything. I would definitely need to figure it out in order to write up a business plan to use when applying for grants or loans.

But I don't know where to start with figuring out pricing when no one else is selling what I want to sell. Right now the only thing I can compare to is the price of fresh oranges shipped directly to consumers, which at a glance look to sell for $35 - $55 per dozen online depending on the variety. I don't think I could charge that much, it just seems like a lot. But I don't know. (I don't account for grocery store citrus, btw - that's super cheap but it also has no flavor.)

And I don't even know where to start to figure out how much fruit my dwarf trees might realistically produce in an average year.

Anyway that's all that's been running through my head. I can envision the progression of the whole idea, but there are still massive gaps that need filling in.

So what do y'all think? Am I chasing rainbows here? Is this just a crazy pipe dream? Or should I stop dreaming and start researching?

I value your collective wisdom and common sense!
 
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Sounds mainly like a pipe dream honestly. The things you want to grow aren’t necessarily what people want to buy. There is a glut of tomatoes and strawberries at the market because that is what people want. No way your citrus could compete with commodity citrus at the grocery stores it’s just too cheap to buy and only a select few are willing to pay extra for higher quality fruit. You won’t find many locally you’ll have to set up shop on internet.

East west is optimal for a passive solar greenhouse. I would section off a smaller part of the chickenhouse and convert that to experiment with and see if you can keep it above freezing before any large commitments happen.

Good luck on the project!
 
pollinator
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While I can't speak to much of what you are asking, I do have a few answers. While I lived in the SF Bay Area, zone 9-10, we grew citrus. Many citrus trees are really more shrub-like, so the height issue shouldn't be a problem. You can get plenty of production out of a 8 foot tree. And from a single Meyer lemon we would get 200-300 lemons a year. Meyer lemons are sought after fruits for fine dining chefs and foodies. Citrus are nice because there isn't a big rush to harvest, they keep well on the tree, in fact, better on the tree than off. Some citrus are more cold tolerant than others, I would go for those.
 
pollinator
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I suspect you would need to remove all the soil from inside the barn (no concrete floor? sounds odd to me) it will be seriously polluted with way to much fertiliser.  Just putting the cow crap out on a field in a heap for one winter stunts the plants in that area the next year, I hate to think what 25 years of chickens and no rain will have done.

Heating, what's your heating plan for winter? You're going to need a huge heating unit to keep that size building out of danger of freezing.

Converting a building to a greenhouse and growing market crops will pay back, growing oranges which are a low value high volume commodity seems unlikely to make anything, growing odd citrus fruits or something like lychees may well make money, but I suspect your customers are not at the farmers market but will be chefs wanting to use local ingredients.

The advantage of a greenhouse at market is getting things out early, you can push it a couple of weeks with an unheated greenhouse, with a bit of heating you can be a month early easily.
 
master gardener
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Location: southern Illinois.
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Hi Laura,

You have received some good advice.   But, you are in a major tourist area.  If your specific location can cash in on the tourist trade ....the entire equation can change. I have this vision of a sign saying “Maryland Oranges” “Chesapeake Lemons”. You could be driven insane each weekend by the folks from DC and Baltimore. It won’t matter if Florida oranges are cheaper.  Yes, there is risk, but I would roll the dice ... if I was in a position to take the risk.
 
Stacy Witscher
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Another good citrus to grow for restaurant/foodie customers is kaffir lime leaves. They are difficult to find. Typically used in Thai cuisine, but fine dining fusion restaurants love them. And because you are raising them for leaves not fruit, cold spikes during flowering don't really matter.

I've also seen some blood oranges that are more cold tolerant for sale. They are very popular with chefs because of their visual appeal.
 
Laura Overholt
Posts: 9
Location: MD Eastern Shore, Zone 7B
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kevin nachman wrote:Sounds mainly like a pipe dream honestly... No way your citrus could compete with commodity citrus at the grocery stores it’s just too cheap to buy and only a select few are willing to pay extra for higher quality fruit.



I appreciate your candor! That's what I was looking for, hard as it is to hear.

I'm not sure if I 100% agree with you on the point quoted above... The citrus at the grocery stores is just not very good - especially once you get a taste for something picked fresh. Grocery store citrus tends to be dry and bland, and sometimes it has an off taste 'cause it's been sitting in a truck and on a shelf for so long. I think if I could grow some good oranges and get people to taste them I'd have repeat customers for sure. They'd buy from me for the exact same reasons that they go to the farmer's market for tomatoes - even though there are plenty of tomatoes available in the grocery store, and at a lower price. I mean otherwise nobody would be buying tomatoes and watermelons and peaches and all the rest of it at the farmer's market at all when it's definitely cheaper and more convenient to get those things at the grocery store. People want fresh produce when they can get it because they know it's worth going a little out of their way to get it. Given the number of roadside citrus stands I saw in Florida, I'd say that's true of citrus as well.

But you're right in that commodity citrus is very cheap at the store. I would need to price my fruit high enough that I'm making at least a little bit of a profit, without being so high that people don't want to spend that kind of money on it. And it would take a few years for my trees to really start producing. They'd need care and maintenance in the meantime - that's a lot of time and expense at the beginning for something that may or may not be profitable in the end.

I think I need to sit down and add up what my costs would be (including my time), how long I could expect trees to produce, and how much they would produce, then come up with a price point (wholesale and retail) for the product before I'll know whether or not it's a project worth doing. Right now I don't have enough information.

Thanks for your feedback!
 
Laura Overholt
Posts: 9
Location: MD Eastern Shore, Zone 7B
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Stacy Witscher wrote:You can get plenty of production out of a 8 foot tree. And from a single Meyer lemon we would get 200-300 lemons a year.



Thank you so much for the info! That's exactly the kind of thing I need to know!

I do have blood oranges and Thai limes on the list, too, though the market for the leaves would be slim in this area I think.

 
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Is it possible to setup the broiler house as a greenhouse? Yes
Is it possible to grow citrus there? Probably
Can you make money doing it? Maybe
Is it going to be more expensive than you think? Definitely

Unless I missed it, you did not specify if this dream was simply to grow citrus and sell it, or if you want to make a living at it. I'm going to reply with the assumption that you want to make a living at it, because that changes quite a few things. I don't think you could make a living selling citrus by itself. However, there are many food based businesses that could incorporate a large greenhouse growing citrus as part of it. You are on the right track to start small, but as someone mentioned, you may want to setup part of the building as a greenhouse and see what the temperatures are, and if you can keep it above freezing. I would research passive greenhouse design (there was a guy back in the 70's or 80's I think who did a lot of research, and most newer designs are based on his work). The principals of insulating the north wall, slanting the south wall at a certain angle for your location, and adding lots of thermal mass would be good things to consider when retrofitting the building. Even with all that, a greenhouse at that size will probably need some kind of heat, which will raise the cost.

You mentioned taking the roof off and putting plastic on, but then also mentioned water catchment from the roof. I doubt greenhouse plastic would make it easy to catch rainwater, but I could be wrong. If you only put glazing on the south half of the roof, and kept the north roof solid, then you should be able to setup some gutter systems on the north wall easily.

You are already thinking diversity, which is good, but I would not rely on just fruits. As someone mentioned, you need to see what people are buying or want to buy. The more diverse your business, the less impact if you have a crop failure one year. If your entire business is a citrus orchard, and something affects the trees that year, you are sunk. But if you have vegetable gardens, and animals, and fiber products, then it will only be a partial hit. It might be prudent to even start with something small that you can do right away to start making money and work on a customer base now. Something like micro greens, or hydroponic salad greens can be done fairly easily in a small space with limited startup money. Having some staple crops growing in between the trees can help fill in the gap until the trees are mature. Mark Shepherd did this with his farm at a larger scale. They grew annuals in between rows of nut and fruit trees.

The last part is often the most difficult. Business. There are many people who can grow/cook/process phenomenal food, who are too shy to sell to people or who are too disorganized to keep track of money. You do not mention if you have any experience with business, particularly starting one by yourself. If you do, great, if not, get the tools and people lined up to help you. An accountant for advice, some software for scheduling and tracking, maybe a young relative who has a knack for talking to people... all these can great assets. You don't have to do it literally alone. To be successful you need to stand out. Locally grown citrus is unsual. Build a story around it, share the story of the flavor you got from a fresh orange, document your greenhouse conversion, explain how the oranges you are selling are not the same product as the orange from the store. Jack Spirko did a phenomenal job at this with his duck business.

I like the way your mind is going with jams and jellies and the like. Every time you process something the value can go up if done right. A whole chicken will sell for a certain price. Cut it up into legs, thighs, breasts, etc and you can sell it for more. Add some marinade, and you can sell for even more. This does not always work, though, as I can sell a bushel of tomatoes for far more than I can sell a bottle of home made ketchup (which takes a ridiculous amount of tomatoes to make). You have to do your research, and actually charge for the real time and costs. Too many people sell lower because they think their prices are too high. Let the customers tell you. The cost to produce something is the cost. If no one will buy it at that price, you may need to come up with a way to be more efficient with your time, or reduce costs, or maybe even find a different market where people are willing to pay that much. If you simply lower the selling price without cutting down the other costs, then you will end up in as a statistic of failed businesses. Unless you are secretly rich and just want to do this for fun, which is a whole different discussion, haha.  

Work hard, start small, work hard, be honest, work hard... and you might be able to get there, though a 2-3 year time frame is way too short.

I hope this is the reality check you needed, and not a reality stomp.
 
kevin nachman
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I do appreciate homegrown citrus when I lived in San Jose California I planted many varieties in my yard. It was always superior to store bought fruit. Now living in Georgia I knew I had to buy it from store to eat it. I’m surprised at the high quality citrus I’ve gotten at the major chains. Of course I’ve bought bad citrus there too it’s a crap shoot. I have best success buying only in winter citrus from California, Texas, Florida. I never buy it out of season from another country. I think you need to keep trying at the store, start with sumo mandarin they are in season now and always good.

If you go to growingfruit.org forum a guy named fruitnut has a greenhouse in Texas growing ultra high quality fruit, measuring brix, withholding water at right times, having greenhouse give the exact right chill hours. He can’t get anyone locally to buy it. They all want it for grocery store prices. He switched to propagation of fig trees/internet sales for money and just grows fruit for personal consumption.

You might want to contact local restaurants and see what they are interested in. Most want to purchase local these days. Micro greens, edible flowers would be easier and more profitable. If you can sell direct to restaurants you avoid wasting weekends staffing a booth at farmers market.

I understand your quest for the best citrus. I can’t eat cherries, preaches, plums, figs and many others because I distinctly remember the taste of my homegrown fruits and I’m always “chasing the original high” those fruits gave me.

Start with a small section and see what it takes to keep above freezing. Grow a few citrus for personal use/experimentation. As mentioned Meyer lemon and calmondin are highly productive varieties on a small plant
 
Laura Overholt
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Location: MD Eastern Shore, Zone 7B
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Skandi Rogers wrote:I suspect you would need to remove all the soil from inside the barn (no concrete floor? sounds odd to me) it will be seriously polluted with way to much fertiliser.  Just putting the cow crap out on a field in a heap for one winter stunts the plants in that area the next year, I hate to think what 25 years of chickens and no rain will have done.

Heating, what's your heating plan for winter? You're going to need a huge heating unit to keep that size building out of danger of freezing.



There's no concrete floor in a commercial broiler house. The floor is packed earth with a foot or two of sawdust on top. Concrete would stay too wet and cold, I think. In ideal conditions the litter is supposed to stay fairly dry through the whole flock.

I know that it's recommended to remove the top 2 to 6 inches of soil when converting chicken houses for other uses. And I'd need to do something to balance the pH. I'd have to have the soil tested to know exactly what it needed, and then tested again after I added some amendments.

I would prefer not to heat the greenhouse, though I'll need some kind of emergency backup for those very rare occasions when temps here get below 30 degrees for any length of time. I live in zone 7B, and we're fairly well-protected by the Chesapeake Bay on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. We rarely even get more than a dusting of snow here. There have been a couple years where we had temps in the 80s at Christmas!

With no chickens right now the temps in the buildings have stayed above freezing even on the coldest days. But there's a foot of sawdust & manure on the ground. It doesn't generate a lot of heat, but it makes a little - just enough to keep the pipes from freezing. Once that litter is gone I'll need to have something else in place to basically do the same thing. Most citrus, as far as I have seen, can survive down to about 35 F as long as it's protected from frost.

I'm looking at the methods used by a lady in British Columbia who is growing citrus in a conventional greenhouse. I don't know what zone she's in exactly, but I know that she also utilizes a wood gasifier for heat to keep her greenhouse above 3 C (37 F) in winter, so I'll have to look into what that would take to set up. She also uses pools in her greenhouse for thermal mass, and if they get a cold spell she'll heat those pools as well to keep the greenhouse warmer.

I do plan on selling wholesale as well as at the farmer's market, and I want to have more crops than just citrus so that I'm not completely dependent upon one crop. I'm still trying to figure out what those other crops would be, though.
 
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