Producer Feature: Ernst Farm

Robert and Mary Ann Ernst are retired sheep and cattle ranchers living not far from the North Dakota border in Glenham, South Dakota. Mary Ann also worked more than twenty years as a registered nurse. They have three grown children (Joanne, Don, and Carol). Two of their children live in South Dakota and work as veterinarians.

According to Robert, “We have always been interested in doing things differently when it comes to growing non-local plants.” Their first greenhouse was a high tunnel with warm 80°F artesian water running through the floor which worked well for vegetables. Then, they retired and moved to their current home. It was then they were introduced to the idea of a geothermally heated greenhouse from Rush Finch, a Nebraska grower. Since winters can dip below –20°F this method made sense.

The greenhouse is 80’ long by 16’ wide. The center is dug in the ground about 4’down and 9’ wide leaving about 4’ benches on each side. The heat comes from a fourteen 4” corrugated drain tile 250’ long, 8’ underground in a loop from one end to the other end of the greenhouse. Blowing air through them brings about 43°F (depending on the day) air up to heat the greenhouse. When the temperature gets
below –20°F outside, the greenhouse does need supplemental heat to keep it from freezing. As a result, Robert is working on a solar heated water system that he can use for supplemental heat when temperatures go that low.

Inside the greenhouse, the Ernst’s grow lemons, oranges, limes, peaches, cherries, figs, and table grapes in the space be- low ground level. On the ledges, they grow blackberries, strawberries, and vegetables. This is now their third season growing plants in the greenhouse, so the trees are just starting to produce. The wide variety of plants that can be grown in is what they really like about the greenhouse.

Eventually, Robert and Mary Ann’s goal is to raise all their own fruits and vegetables for themselves and for their son Don’s family down the street. They will then sell all they have left over.

Robert’s advice to someone doing this type of greenhouse is to get in touch with Russ Finch from Alliance, Nebraska or go visit his website and follow his plans as he has been researching and growing this way for 25 years or better and has most of the bugs worked out of it.

As to what they have learned he said, “you never stop learning on a project like this.” We appreciate Mary Ann and Robert’s willingness to continue learning and modeling innovative growing methods in South Dakota.