Michael McDonough Shares Insights on His Unique Net-zero Energy Farm
Presenting the interview with Michael McDonough, founder of Tongore Brook Farm. Find out more about this net-zero energy operation in the paragraphs below.
What's your name? What’s the Name of your farm and where are you based?
I am Michael McDonough at Tongore Brook Farm (technically ”Tongore Brook Farm LLC”) in Stone Ridge, NY.
What's the story behind your farm?
The farm began as an idea about 20 years ago, when I was still living in New York City’s SoHo district and working as an artist and architect. The concept involved me taking the lessons I had learned from working all over the world in art, architecture, applied physics, and green building technologies for years and then building an experimental house on an abandoned English Colonial farm in Upstate New York (where the Mid-Hudson Valley meets the Catskills Mountains).
It was an ultra-energy efficient building, and then I applied what I had learned to a Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) four-season greenhouse in a rewilded forest. You know... run of the mill stuff… 😉
What's the funniest/most exciting story you've experienced while running the farm?
Well, this goes to what a wonderful professor of mine, Denise Scott Brown, used to call, “The gaiety of despair.”
Her idea was that when you find yourself in an absurd, exhausting, impossible situation (i.e., a ball-busting Ivy League graduate degree architecture school) you had better let go and try to get through it with a smile. So after I got my farm set-up I learned that 80% of the farms in the US make no money at all...
Wait… ah… BIG frickin’ smile!
What types of microgreens and other produce are you currently growing?
All of our microgreens are USDA Certified Organic and sun, soil, and filtered rainwater grown. We have grown over 60 different crops in the greenhouse, including flowers, herbs, lettuces, brassicas, a variety of other vegetables… you name it.
Currently we grow broccoli, bull’s blood beets, clover, hemp, mustard, peas, radish, and sunflower shoots, and wheatgrass.
Some we sell as individual products and some we combine into bespoke seasonally-varied mixes. We also do custom grows for chefs, these ranging from borage, to fava flowers, to popcorn.
We also produce seasonal forest products such as single forest maple drinks and syrup, and we have done white oak log organic shiitake mushrooms, pine tips, and other custom requests from chefs.
What makes your produce different?
Four-season, USDA Certified Organic, living-soil-food-web soils (organic compost (yay, beneficial nematodes!) and other organic inputs co-developed with microbiologists), five-times-filtered rainwater that meets or exceeds NY State potable water standards, all products are taste, color, and flavor profile-evaluated with chefs and other food professionals prior to marketing, local seed suppliers, supplemental lighting co-developed with Signify Lighting (formerly Philips Lighting);
multiple state and national certifications, ongoing research with Cornell University; and cooperative outreach to other local farms to grow their field-farmed starts.
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Sun dried organic shiitake mushrooms. Our unexpected early spring flush of oak log shiitake produced more than we could use short term. The trick is to sun-dry them, and when you do it “gills up” over a couple of days you increase the amount of dietary vitamin D by 460 times according to mushroom guru Paul Stamets at fungi.com. Reported benefits include fighting cancer, boosting immunity, and supporting heart health. You can rehydrate them at any time over a period of years and make all sorts of wonderfully delicious dishes. Just sayin’....
All our forest products are sourced from our 30-acre USDA Certified Organic forest lands.
What do you grow your microgreens on?
Bespoke USDA Certified Organic living-soil-food-web soils. We give our soil to chefs to evaluate by smell and texture.
What type of lighting are you using?
A wide variety because we are constantly testing. Signify Lighting works with Cornell University to customize their spectrum and light intensity (photon density) based-on latitude and crop, as well as distance of luminaire from crop canopy. This I leave to the scientists. I am an architect as well as a farmer. I know my limits and when I reach them I call in a professional.
What type of temperature do you choose and what's your normal humidity level?
I like to say that I designed my greenhouse climate control systems to create Santa Barbara, California in spring (75dF at 75% RH) in Upstate New York in January. We don’t always get there but that is our goal… at 90% less energy consumption than a standard greenhouse and up to ten times the yield of a field farm.
What kind of water are you using for watering and do you use any add-ons for the water?
Five times filtered rainwater - multiple coarse mechanical filters with a UV filter-finish. Beyond that, nothing.
What type of clients do you currently serve and what locations do you cover?
We sell wholesale to retail outlets, restaurants, caterers, and so forth. Our market is the Mid-Hudson Valley and New York City. We have also shipped via UPS Ground in our own special cool-pack boxes to states as far away as South Carolina (around 850 miles).
What's Your Mission?
We are mission-driven because we are committed to proving-out our four-season climate resilient “greenhouse-in-a-rewilded-forest” technology.
We run a net-zero energy operation on solar PV and geothermal wells, and the question has always been: “Can a sustainable, adaptive, resilient agricultural production system change the way we grow food in the 21st century using an economically viable platform?”
After four years the answer seems to be, “yes.” The next question is: “Can our 3,000 square-foot, proof-of-concept facility become a springboard for scaled-up versions that form the centers of climate resilient communities?”
We are working on that now. Stay tuned.
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Greenhouse summer shadescreen. We got our “sun bonnet” up, over, and tied down over the weekend. These special woven fabrics forestall the overheating created by the summer sun, keeping 10° to 15° of solar heat from entering the grow space. And that reduces the amount of energy and machinery required to keep things humming along over the next several months.
Based on your experience, what would you suggest farms in a similar position think about?
Research your market, i.e., “ask your market what it wants;” figure out your start-up capital and then double it; start small (one to six crops, maximum); connect to your community; learn to survive on four-hours of sleep; have a therapist or religious leader to consult with when you are in crisis; and never, ever, ever put a seed in the ground unless you know who is going to buy it and where you are going to sell it.
The Final Rapid 3:
What’s your favorite course and/book that helped you learn the in depth knowledge on growing microgreens and starting a business:
- A. Microgreen Garden: An Indoor Grower's Guide to Gourmet Greens by Mark Mathew Braunstein. Mark is an extraordinary human being made of courage and smarts. This guy rules. The book was originally twice its published length but the publisher wanted it to be concise, so search his work out on the web for more info.
- B. Any and every book, paper, and video by American microbiologist, soil biology researcher, and founder of Soil Foodweb Inc, Dr. Elaine Ingham. This gal plays the electron microscope like Jeff Beck plays the guitar.
- And, having noted that, C. My mantra, supposedly the work-flow model of Thomas Alva Edison (yes I know he is controversial and I like Nikola Tesla better (check-out the movie The Prestige, where David Bowie plays Nikola Tesla), but still...): Multiple iteration; repeated failure; constant progress.
What are your 3 most favorite farm tools you can’t really run the farm without? (Dude… spelling….)
iPhone; paper towels; patience and grit.
What are your favorite microgreens communities? (on Facebook, Reddit, etc.)
I did not know there were any. I like watching YouTube music videos (e.g., Samantha Fish with her cigar box guitar, which gets me through late-night deadlines), Netflix, and TikTok.
What to do next?
If you enjoyed Tongore Brook Farm’s story please do share it on your social media profiles. You can also PM the founder(s) and ask them anything you want using any of the social media profiles described below:
- Farm's website - tongorebrook.com
- A link to farm’s Facebook Page - https://www.facebook.com/tongorebrookfarm/
- Follow them in Instagram - @tongorebrook