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Earth Eats: Real Food, Green Living

Chile Farm Runs On The Power Of The Sun

"The Chile Woman" Susan Welsand was able to install a 5.2 kilowatt array of solar panels after a tornado uprooted several old-growth trees on her farm.

'The Chile Woman' Susan Welsand

Photo: Leigh Bush/WFIU

Susan Welsand grows chiles in two greenhouses on her farm in Bloomington, Indiana.

More Power To You

Susan Welsand‘s two greenhouses are chock full of chile plants these days.

She doesn’t allow anyone inside except the inspector so we peer through a window to see thousands of germinating seeds. Shipping plants is such a highly regulated activity that she’s fanatical about keeping contamination out of her greenhouses. Additional agricultural regulations require that she ship the plants in May and June only, so “The Chile Woman” is preparing for a busy couple months.

I visited her on a cloudy and chilly day, which is fairly typical for this time of year. The chile plants need temperatures around 85-90 degrees, so she’s running heat in her greenhouses almost constantly.

“You can conserve in your personal life, but for your business that’s not really an option. You need power to run a business,” she says.

Blessing In Disguise

This is the first growing season the sun will power every aspect of her business, thanks to two large towers containing 20 solar panels — a 5.2 kilowatt array.

Her property had been heavily wooded until a tornado came through in May 2011 and uprooted several large trees. Debris is still stacked in piles around the farm, and she’s saving wood from the big trees to make furniture. “I’d never seen the sky back here. This was real shocking,” she says.

With the help of a tax credit for small businesses and a lot of penny pinching, she installed the solar panels and rewired the greenhouses in late 2012.

Spread Sheet Farming

While she can sit back and let the sun power her farm, that’s about the only aspect of her business that’s hands-off.

She takes meticulous notes as she sews her 1,600 varieties of chile plants. To her surprise, customers are ordering more Burning Bush chile plants this year. She consults her notes and realizes she needs to sew more of those seeds.

If she only grew a few varieties of chile plants, her life would be much easier. “There’s a reason there’s not a lot of people doing this!”

Welsand’s wish for spring?

“I’m hoping for more sun. Any sunny day is a good day!”

Annie Corrigan

Annie Corrigan is a producer and announcer for WFIU. In addition to serving as the local voice for NPR's Morning Edition, she produces WFIU's weekly sustainable food program Earth Eats. She earned degrees in oboe performance from Indiana University and Bowling Green State University.

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