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Hooping It Up

March 26, 2009 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Jim Slyuter
Inexpensive hoophouses help growers extend their growing seasons, particularly in places like northern Michigan.

It’s a recurring question: How can Michigan farmers satisfy local markets when their growing season is so short?

Researchers at Michigan State University have found an effective, affordable answer: a new, badly needed piece of infrastructure that is perfect for helping smaller farms get more products to more markets. It’s called a passive solar greenhouse, or “hoophouse.” Made of double-layered plastic stretched over a metal framework, hoophouses allow farmers to grow as many as 30 different cold-tolerant crops, from spinach to pak choi, through the dead of winter. Hoophouses also can provide restaurants, farmers markets, and other venues with ripe tomatoes and other high-demand vegetables as early as June—a real feat in Michigan.

“For Michigan farmers, it’s really important to get in early and to be able to stay in late,” said Adam Mitchel, a produce coordinator with the Midwest division of Whole Foods Market.

He’s referring to the fact that everybody from California to Georgia has tomatoes to sell in August. Targeting times when their local foods are especially precious, like vine-ripened tomatoes in June, is just one of the ways Michigan farms can make hoophouses pay.

Passive solar hoophouses cost a lot less to build and operate than other types of greenhouses, which generally require a heat source, like propane or wood. That means farmers can get started making money for much less upfront investment. A standard 30 by 96-ft. hoophouse can cost $8,000 to $15,000, depending on its bells and whistles. With 60 percent of its area used for crops, it can bring in as much as $26,000 in gross sales in one year, said Jeremy Moghtader, a manager of MSU’s Student Organic Farm.

The farm has several hoophouses; students and faculty use them not only to gather valuable information for farmers but also to grow food for sale. The Student Organic Farm is truly hands-on, with a year-round Community Supported Agriculture operation giving students the chance to learn every aspect of organic growing and business management, including hoophouse growing.

Jim Slyuter
Adam Montri of Michigan Fooed and Farming Systems shows growers how to install and use hoophouses.

MSU’s Division of Housing and Food Services has partnered with the Student Organic Farm and MSU’s C.S. Mott Group for Sustainable Food Systems to construct the farm’s largest hoophouse yet. With it, the Student Organic Farm will sell greens year-round to campus dorms.

The goal is to produce fresh food for campus, and demonstrate how more farms could do it, too.

“We want to help pave the way for other farms to sell to bigger buyers, like institutional food services,” said Moghtader.

It takes some planning and preparation to use hoophouses. Farmers must think about solar gain from all angles when deciding where to put them. They also have to plan their planting to allow for slower growth during the coldest, darkest times.

But the modest build-out cost is proving to be worth it for farms that are expanding markets for fresh and local foods. Communities that help local farms take advantage of this and other season-extending technologies will benefit both from the farms’ business success…and from their year-round food.

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