This isn't your grandmother's root cellar

A few years ago, it was just a germ of an idea.

The Deep Roots Food Hub (DRFH), a group in West Carleton committed to creating a more secure and sustainable food system, wanted to build a root cellar that small-scale farmers could rent to store their crops.

It would be a way to help farmers preserve their crops over the winter so they could continue selling them, while also keeping locally-grown vegetables on people's tables. 

Fast forward to November 2019, and that root cellar is ready for its first trial run.

"This would be huge for me," said Kate Garvie, the owner of HeartBeet Farm near Constance Bay, on CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning last week.

"Right now I'm trying to do a season extension, but I'm renting land [to farm]. So I don't want to build infrastructure because I can't take it with me. This is great in terms of a solution while I look for land and expand my business." 

It's a similar story for Amanda Gillespie, the owner of Limestone Acres Farm in Kinburn. 

"There is a huge demand for local food, especially in the winter," said Gillespie. "But there's no farmers who can supply it in the middle of winter. So this is a huge opportunity."

No vegetables in the Diefenbunker 

In the planning stages, as organizers looked for the right spot, there was talk of trying to use part of the Diefenbunker.

"Everyone thought it was a brilliant idea, until they looked and it's a historical building and you can't modify that," said Jeff Cosman, a volunteer who helped build the cellar. 

Ultimately, the group settled on roughly half a hectare of National Capital Commission land on Davidson Side Road at Carling Avenue, on the edge of West Carleton.

They received several grants, including $123,000 from the Ottawa Community Foundation, $48,500 from the Greenbelt Fund and $25,000 from the City of Ottawa. DRFH itself raised $33,000, and construction was all done by volunteers. 

Hallie Cotnam/CBC

The result is an above-ground steel hut, estimated to be able to store up to 27,000 kilograms of produce. 

Solar panels power the hut's air circulation system, while inside it's layered with insulation, including the floor. There's a system that delivers live data on temperature and humidity, and sends volunteers an alert if things get too cold or too warm — hopefully in time for the cellar to be repaired before food spoils.

If it sounds highly scientific compared to a hole carved out of the side of a hill, that's because the cellar needs to be high-tech since the vegetables inside are going to be sold. 

"You need consistency, you need perfect conditions, and you can't have bacteria," Cosman said. 

Hallie Cotnam/CBC

The proof is in the rutabaga 

Despite all the scientific checks and balances, both Garvie and Gillespie admit they're a bit hesitant to surrender this year's crops to the cellar before it's proven itself. 

If the cellar does pass the test, it would be good news for the region, Gillespie said. 

"Local food matters. It's huge for your local economy. Producers, farmers, agriculture — it affects a lot of people all along the line," she said.  

"And in order for a lot of small businesses to thrive in the off-season, we need facilities like this."