Michigan hoophouse program benefits farmers, families, and markets

Like a lot of farmers in Michigan, Kelly Vallelunga, from Long Valley Farm outside of Comstock, struggles with the vagaries of the seasons. That's especially true in the spring when her soil can remain cold and wet long after winter has passed.

Along with other growers she has turned to passive solar hoophouses to extend her growing season. The difference has been significant, according to Vallelunga, adding two solid months of growing in the spring.

Since building her hoophouse through a program supported by the Michigan Farmers Market Association (MIFMA), The Michigan State University Center for Regional Food Systems, and the Michigan State University Department of Horticulture, Vallelunga has been growing in 11 seasons, bringing spinach to farmers markets in Battle Creek and Kalamazoo in winter; tomatoes, cucumbers and flowers in summer; and salad mix and radishes in the seasons between.

But the program isn't just designed to help farmers. Growers pay off their loans for the hoophouses by selling to institutions that serve food-insecure families or to individuals at farmers markets who have been given special vouchers.

Vallelunga says that these folks often haven't previously shopped at these markets and that she has "gotten some regular customers from the program."

In this way, the program delivers benefit for growers, farmers markets, institutions, and families by using relatively low-cost technology.

Solar energy can bring temperatures to the 90s, even in cold weather.
Hoophouses are a simple, but innovative technology that allow farmers in cold climates to grow — or at least to keep alive — plants like spinach and kale during the winter. In the summer they can be used to produce heat-loving crops and get produce like tomatoes and peppers to market earlier. Unlike traditional greenhouses, they don't require glass panels or heaters, but consist of UV-resistant plastic pulled over metal hoops.

Solar energy alone is enough to get temperatures up into the 90s on even the coldest days. And warmth stored in the soil — along with another layer of internal "row-covers" pulled at night — keeps winter-hardy plants from freezing when it's dark. These simple innovations make hoophouses an inexpensive way for local farmers to expand their growing season and balance their cash flow. As an added bonus, the sugar-rich versions of spinach and carrots that are pulled in the winter months are generally a hit with customers.

Double-dipping for more crops

Seizing on the transformative potential of hoophouses, the supporting partners decided to use them to “have one amount of resources or money work twice,” as executive director Amanda Shreve puts it. The collaborative and innovative Hoophouses For Health program provides zero-interest loans to qualifying growers to build hoophouses.

As of last year, these sales can be made through a card that transfers benefits from an account set up by MIFMA to pay off the balance of the farmer's loan.

The potential of hoophouses to transform Michigan's food economy is profound, especially on small farms that sell to local buyers.

"The hoops are the heart of our business," Alex Ball from Old City Acres, a Hoophouses for Health loan recipient in Belleville, says. "If I could have my whole farm in hoophouses, I would."

Ball estimates that he earns an additional $4,000 a year from the tunnel that he financed through the program — the tunnel itself only cost about $1,500.

Ball delivers crops like tomatoes to the Ypsilanti Farmers Market a month earlier than larger farms, allowing him to remain competitive. And he says that winter harvests help him stay in touch with customers, maintaining important relationships while also extending his cash flow.

"If it's managed properly, you can have cash flow almost all year round," he says, "which is so nice because most farms are on a pretty severe bell curve of production. They might not see any field crops until mid-June or maybe late-May. And by the time there's frost, they're done."

Economic growth from a simple design

Thinking about the food system more broadly, Shreve emphasizes the ability of hoophouses to extend Michigan's diverse agricultural production over a longer timeframe. That's important since the state is second only to California in the number of different commodities grown. If the growing period for these were lengthened, that could expand a sector of the economy that's the second largest in Michigan and employs 22 percent of the workforce.

Kelly Vallelunga picks beans from dry plants.

The program has averaged $300,000 in loans per year, working with around 42 farms to construct roughly 50,000 square feet of hoophouses annually. This has translated into a yearly average of $55,000 in sales at farmers markets and 10,400 pounds of food donated to schools, childcare centers and other educational institutions. Unfortunately, no new loans are being granted at this time, although MIFMA will continue to service the remaining loans for the next several years.

Going forward, MIFMA and partners hope to share the lessons learned from the Hoophouses for Health program and potentially finance additional rounds of loans.

Among the aspects of the program that Ball found significant were the support offered to farmers in the form of site visits and remote assistance by hoophouse experts like researcher Adam Montri from Michigan State University, as well as the overall ease of using the program.

"We really endeavored through this program to make it easy for farmers to apply," Shreve says, "It wasn't just a loan program, but had all the wraparound services that farmers would need to participate and really thrive."

A supportive and easy-to-use program is important for growers like Ball and Vallelunga, who typically work 80 hours a week. Compared to other state and federal programs that Ball describes as "unwieldy," the program is unique.

For her part, Shreve hopes that growers and institutions who have participated in the program continue to work together. "We're providing technical assistance even as farmers are graduating from the program," she says, "to ensure that they have the capacity and the tools and resources they need to continue those relationships even after they’ve paid back their loan."

She also stresses the way the program has strengthened farmers markets, bringing in new customers and new farms and expanding the period of time when people are selling and buying.

Taken together, these benefits represent a significant return for a low-cost technology that could continue to deliver benefits to communities for years to come.

This story is part of “Michigan Good Food Stories” a series that explores access, equity, and sustainability in Michigan’s thriving food economy. This work is made possible by Michigan Good Food and is supported by the W.K. Kellogg FoundationRead more in this series.

Photos, except where noted, by Susan Andress.
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Read more articles by Brian Allnutt.

Brian Allnutt is a Detroit-based writer and a co-owner of Detroit Farm and Garden.