Bergman box

Larry Bergman stands besides the control boxes that channel power from his solar panels and wind generators into the storage batteries below. He designed and built the entire system, which powers the house, irrigation pumps, and greenhouse.

BLACKFOOT – The word “farm” in Idaho conjures up a large tract of land where tons of crops such as potatoes, grain, and hay are grown, but when Carol and Larry Bergman say it, they’re speaking of a place that will sustain them in a time of need.

The Bergmans live on two acres of land they bought east of Blackfoot some 10 years ago, and if an emergency arises, be it natural or man-made, they will be one family that’s able to survive.

They’ve got a small herd of goats to provide milk and cheese — and meat if necessary — a small flock of laying hens, a hothouse where they nurture fruit and vegetables and a pond full of fish. They have a pantry filled with jar after jar of fruits and vegetables, jams and jellies, and a store of freeze-dried produce, all grown by the couple and canned and frozen each year by Carol.

Last, but by no means least, they have wind and solar power to provide electricity for their little farm.

The Bergmans are relative newcomers to Blackfoot, having moved here 11 years ago from Oregon where they’d lived for a number of years while Larry pursued his career as an electrical control designer, a profession he began in 1979.

Their home was only a short distance from Salem, Oregon’s state capital, and when retirement loomed, they decided it would be best to spend it away from a big city with its steadily growing rate of drug abuse and crime.

Bingham County seemed to be the kind of place they were looking for, and it wasn’t too far from Larry’s boyhood home in the Ashton area, where he grew up on the dryland farm of his parents. He got a job with Premier Technology in Blackfoot and they moved here in 2008. Not long after that they went to work on their goal of becoming self-sufficient.

They began with the garden and fruit trees, then bought a couple of Nubian and three Nigerian dwarf goats. Then they added 10 laying hens, and when Larry retired in 2010 they decided to put in a greenhouse so they could have fresh vegetables year-round.

They wanted one that was ecologically friendly, so they opted for aquaponics, a system that uses the refuse of aquatic animals instead of commercial fertilizer and nutrients as hydroponics alone does. They dug a fish pond, lined it with Polymer and had the greenhouse erected over it.

They stocked the 2,200-gallon pond with a variety of Tilapia native to the Sea of Galilee, and they named their operation “Yah Farm,” from Yahweh, the Hebrew word for God, a salute to their Hebrew roots. In addition to commercial fish food, the fish subsist on barley and duckweed.

The entire hothouse operation, designed and built by Larry, is far too complicated to describe here, but in a nutshell, water and fish waste are suctioned from the bottom of the pond and into tanks, where they pass through a series of filters to separate the waste. The first filter removes nitrates and cleanses the water and that water returns to the pond while water containing the waste is directed onto the plants, which grow from pots filled with lava rock and populated with earthworms to dispose of the residue from the fish waste.

Realizing what such an operation would do to their electricity bill, Larry designed and built an alternate power source. He had a couple of wind generators installed on the roof of their house and a couple of solar panels erected in the back yard. In what was originally the garage, he built side-by side control panels for the power systems, and two banks of batteries to store the power they produce — 24 two-volt batteries for the solar and two 12-volt batteries for the wind.

The wind power heats the house and runs the irrigation pumps while the solar power takes care of the greenhouse. The fish pond is heated by natural gas during the winter months when sunshine is in short supply, but Larry is currently working on a solar-powered system to replace the gas.

“It’s been a learning process,” he said. “We learned as we went along.”

They can grow many crops in their greenhouse, but currently it’s filled with green beans, tomatoes, ginger root and other herbs. Larry says that some of the tomato plants are four years old. “I just pluck off the leaves as they die and the plants keep on growing,” he said. There are also a couple of fig trees there, and if you’ve never eaten a fresh fig, you’ve missed a taste treat.

In addition to providing fertilizer, the fish, which can grow up to seven pounds, are also a source of income, netted and sold live to customers. They’d like to sell their fish to local restaurants, the couple said, but they don’t have a means of processing them, and they would have to convince the restaurants to accept live fish.

Carol milked the goats for a time — until they no longer wanted to be milked, she said. “They started kicking over the bucket, so I finally gave up.” A friend gave them a billy goat, and now their herd of four has grown to more than 20. The goats are sold to 4-H Club members, people wanting to start their own herd, and are quite popular with certain ethnic groups as meat, including Muslim students at Idaho State University.

The farm pretty much occupies any spare time they might have, with the fish pond alone commanding three to four hours a day, Larry said. When he’s not busy there he’s doing maintenance elsewhere, just as Carol is constantly busy with her own chores of gardening and canning while fruit and vegetables are ready for harvest.

But the long hours of hard work are worth it, knowing if disaster strikes, they will be secure.