Out of the Box
A "hoop house" shelters crops during the winter at Long Shadow Farm in Berthoud.
Farmers Pursue Hoop Dreams
By Rebecca Jones
Photography By Dan Sidor
A unique program in Michigan is providing zero-interest loans to farmers to build season-extending passive solar greenhouses – called "hoop houses" – while at the same time helping low-income families shop for fresh produce at farmers markets.
"We're making the same funding work twice – once to benefit vendors selling fresh produce at farmers markets, and the second time to benefit the low-income individuals surrounding those markets," says Amanda Segar, Food Assistance Partnership coordinator for the Michigan Farmers Market Association, located on the campus of Michigan State University in East Lansing, Mich.
Here's how the program works: Thanks to a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the association will make available $500,000 in loans for three years to farmers wanting to build hoop houses. These greenhouses will allow them to extend the growing season and continue to harvest crops well into winter.
The loan, up to $15,000 per farmer, can also cover the costs of irrigation or other equipment. "We want to make sure they have everything they need to function in the hoop house," Segar says.
Studies at Michigan State and other universities have shown hoop houses can grow more than 30 types of vegetables all winter long in many parts of the country and can stretch the growing season for delicate warm-season crops such as tomatoes and peppers into the spring and fall. Hoop house construction has exploded in recent years – there's even one at the White House – along with interest in locally grown, fresh foods.
Michigan's program, developed by the farmers market association, Michigan State and market managers, has the extra twist of encouraging low-income people to visit farmers markets.
By distributing fresh produce to low-income residents who use their food assistance benefits at farmers markets, farmers can help pay off their loans. The association will distribute $2 vouchers to community organizations, which in turn share those vouchers with individuals eligible for assistance benefits.
"The hope is that they will take the vouchers to the farmers market and purchase food from the hoop house loan recipients," Segar says. "Then the farmers will bring the vouchers they redeem back to us, and the value of the food they've sold will be deducted from their loan principal."
Even farmers who don't redeem the vouchers for loan repayment purposes will benefit because it's in every vendor's interest to attract as many people as possible to the farmers markets, Segar says. Michigan's number of farmers markets has ballooned to 280 from 90 in the past 10 years. More are staying open year-round or holding special winter markets.
"We hope this program will increase the number of low-income individuals who know where the farmers markets are and who shop there. We hope it's a kind of gateway to get them to the market, see what it has to offer and use their benefits card there," she says.
The program is too new to have results yet, Segar says. So far, six farmers have taken out the loans, and their hoop houses were to be built over the winter.