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.
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!