Adventures in Winter Farming

By | January 17, 2013

FeatureWashtenaw County farmer Dan Bair stands in front of his 100-foot-long winter hoop house.There was a time in Michigan when eating local was a May-through-September affair. Not anymore. Across the state, winter farmers markets are now making it easier than ever to extend your locavorism—sometimes year round. And we’re not just talking jams and root veggies. Increasingly, farmers are figuring out ways to grow your favorite leafy greens even during the coldest part of the year. It’s testing the limits of what we think of as the traditional Michigan growing season—and pushing farmers into uncharted territory

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f you want to see the good side—the warm, fuzzy side—of what winter farming in Michigan looks like, today is the day. It might not look it at the moment. At 9 a.m., it’s still in the low twenties outside, and there’s snow on the ground. But Dan Bair, the upbeat, bearded, 30-something director of the small farm run by St. Joseph Mercy Hospital near Ypsilanti, seems optimistic.

“Nothing like a sunny winter day in the hoop,” Dan texts us a few hours before our visit.

The “hoop,” if you’re wondering, is one of the farm’s 30-by-100-foot hoop houses—a more-or-less semicircular, unheated greenhouse that allows Dan to do the impossible: grow vegetables in January. Low-tech and simple, the structure is little more than a steel frame with plastic stretched over the top. But that’s enough to, indeed, make the hoop a good place to be today—for vegetables and humans alike.

“It’s about 64 in here right now,” Dan says, bending over to get a reading from the hoop house thermometer. He’s jacketless, and the air is damn-near sauna-like. In fact, the sun is so warm on your skin, you feel like you could get a sunburn. And the vegetables growing underneath the plastic canopy look like they have no idea what season it is. Chard, kale, arugula, lettuce, spinach, beets, and carrots all grow perkily in neat little rows as if it were perpetual spring.

Such is the scene on a growing number of Michigan farms, from southeastern Michigan all the way up to the Upper Peninsula. And while hoop houses actually have been around for a long time, they’ve officially reached “en vogue” status among the hundreds of small farmers that make up Michigan’s burgeoning small-farm movement. The idea is basically this: Hoop houses’ passive heat-trapping qualities mean that farmers can grow things deeper into the season—far beyond the traditional “first frost” deadline. In some cases, they even promise year-round growing. That all means a calendar year with way more harvest days, more fresh, local produce at farmers markets, and more income for farmers.

That’s how it should work—and to some degree, does. But not necessarily during all 12 months of the year. Those beautiful rows of greens growing in Dan’s hoop house, for instance, aren’t really doing all that much growing right now. According to Dan, the plastic will keep them warm enough not to die; most nights they’ll even freeze solid as the air in the hoop house is quick to yield back the heat it gained during the day. He also spends an hour every evening, like any good dad, tucking them in at night underneath a protective layer of agricultural fabric. All this, he’s more than willing to do. But he can’t do much about the shorter day-lengths and regular cloud cover that January is throwing at him right now. And without light, the plants won’t do much but hold their own.

“Stuff won’t really start growing again until February, when the days start getting longer,” Dan explains. That’s still way before you could traditionally harvest crops planted in the spring. But the slow-growing winter harvest still won’t provide the kind of on-demand abundance you’ll see at a summer market or in stores stocked with produce imported from outside the region—something many people expect from winter farming. “At farmers markets starting in late February or early March, I’ll actually have people asking for cherry tomatoes,” Dan says, laughing. “They ask, When are you going to have cherry tomatoes?, and I say, July. And they look so disappointed. A lot of people have no idea what seasonality is.”

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It was late summer, and third-year Washtenaw County farmer Megan DeLeeuw was trying to make a tough decision: Her tomatoes were still loaded with fruit, so she could either leave them in the ground, or rip them out to make room for the stuff she planned to grow this winter. She made the wrong call.

“I totally screwed myself this year,” Megan says, looking down at the rows of greens growing in her hoop house. “But it just felt wrong to pull tomatoes out in September if they were still producing—it was killing me.” Now that it’s December, though, her winter garden is nowhere near what it should be. The kale is just a few inches tall. The beets, permanently stunted by the cold, are the size of gumdrops.

It’s a rookie mistake, and she knows it. To get the most out of a winter garden, you’ve got to be planting in late summer what you plan to harvest in January. That means being ruthless with the replanting reschedule. But even if you get the calendar right, plenty can still go wrong inside the hoop. Last year—her first season of winter farming—Megan used straw to plug the gap between the bottom edge of her hoop house and the ground. The result was what she refers to as “the mouse hotel.” She tells us that a friend of hers even had hundreds of feet of hoop house plantings obliterated by a “pack” of mice in a single night. And mice aren’t the only unwelcomed visitors. Everything that makes the hoop house a more hospitable environment for vegetables also makes it a magnet for anything else trying to escape the winter cold. Aphids are Megan’s nemesis of the moment; slugs run a close second. In a confined and often damp space like a hoop house, pressure from diseases and pests are more numerous than in the summer; options for treating them are not.

“If this were the summer, and I had an aphid problem, I would just rip this all out and replant,” she says, pointing at a row of greens. “But nothing would grow in here if I replanted now. Until February, this thing is basically a glorified refrigerator.”

Glorified refrigerator isn’t a bad analogy. An old refrigerator with some cold spots might be a better one. The plants freezing solid at night means Megan can’t actually harvest anything until later in the day when daytime temperatures climb high enough to thaw the plants. “If you harvest things when they’re frozen, everything just turns to mush,” she says. It’s a similar situation when it comes to getting things to market. When she discovered that her outdoor washing station was way too cold for her or the cut greens to handle, she reluctantly inaugurated a routine of disinfecting and taking over her home kitchen once a week. And at market, it soon became obvious why some of the veteran sellers were bringing space heaters. “Last week, my stuff was actually freezing right there on the table—it’s that cold,” Megan says. “This week I bought a little heating unit, so I’m hoping I’ll be less stressed out.”

Even with all these challenges, Megan’s still making it work this winter. In past years, she’s had to work an off-farm job to make it through the winter months—something that’s a fact of life for many farmers. Earlier this year, however, she ran the numbers and figured out that her minimum-wage job at a specialty grocer would pay just as poorly as staying on the farm. Being her own boss was a no-brainer decision. It helps that the demand for local greens this year is totally outstripping supply. In the summer months, there are many dozens of vendors at the Ann Arbor farmers market who are essentially selling the same things she is. In the winter, it’s just a handful.

“I sold out completely last week, and I haven’t done that in a really long time,” Megan says. “Even lettuce that was partially frozen—somebody bought it. They said, ‘I don’t care. Give it to me at a discount.’”

The next week, it’s the same thing. When we arrive at the farmers market around 11 o’clock on a Saturday, she’s already packing up. “You’re late!” she yells at us, smiling, then digs through her stuff, handing us a lone bunch of white Japanese turnips. “They have a little rabbit damage, but they’re still good,” she says. One of the turnips has been nibbled lightly on the top. Half-eaten or not, the cold-kissed turnips taste just as sweet.

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Veteran Leelanau County farmer Jenny Tutlis would be the first to admit that email is not one of her favorite ways to spend her time. But back in April 2006, the email she had to send to her winter customers—who had all prepaid for their weekly produce deliveries—was enough to make her sick. The day before, the farm’s lone 20-by-96-foot hoop house was bursting with salad mix, kale, chard and other greens. A few hours later, an unexpected nighttime blizzard was ripping off one side of the hoop house’s plastic cover, sending blowing snow and freezing air inside. They lost pretty much everything, and it fell to Jenny to break the news.

Fortunately, there were no angry return emails in her inbox. Under the farm model she and her husband Jon use—a model called community supported agriculture, or CSA—risks like crop loss are assumed as a part of doing business. With CSA, “shareholders” invest in the farm at the start of the growing season and then reap a weekly delivery of the farm’s harvest as a return on that investment. It’s a way of giving the farmers the money they need upfront. But if things go unexpectedly wrong, the shareholders can lose out.

“You can’t take advantage of people’s trust,” Jenny says. “If something like that happens once, most people are probably going to understand. After that, you really have to try your hardest to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Luckily for them, it hasn’t. In fact, that winter, they were able to replant the entire hoop house and get their shareholders make-up greens in about three weeks. And the impromptu fix they invented in the middle of that blizzard night to secure the bottom edge of their hoop house is still something they use today. Things like this often have to be learned through experience—10 years of winter farming experience in their case. And Jenny says she often feels like the fad nature of the hoop house phenomenon means that farmers often take on winter farming with unrealistic expectations.

“The standard line out there is that growing in hoop houses is easy,” she says. “People will tell you you don’t have the kinds of pests and diseases you have in the summer. And that’s true—but you have completely different ones. We’ve felt like we had to completely relearn how to do a lot of things. It’s very humbling. It’s like farming graduate school—not a place to start.”

By all measures, Jon and Jenny are full blown post-docs by now. After 10 years of tweaks, their winter farming “system” is finally bordering on something worthy of the name. Recently, they added a heated processing area so Jon can wash the greens without danger of them—or him—freezing. They even figured out they can afford to shut down their farm deliveries during the month of January, when nothing’s growing anyway, and take a bona fide vacation with their two kids. And for them, like Megan, winter farming has meant the difference between staying on the farm and going to look for off-farm work every fall. For years, Jenny waitressed in the off-season. And Jon’s assortment of winter jobs included fixing copy machines, polishing marble countertops, and working as a movie projectionist. For the past 10 years, though—the years they’ve done hoop house growing—they’ve just been farmers. “I still remember the feeling that first year, when we were able to pay our bills just from doing this,” Jenny says. “It felt like we were finally grown-ups.”

The benefits of winter farming aren’t just material either. The slower pace and relative quiet are the winter farmer’s other universal reward. Jon and Jenny use the time each year to catch up on new music while washing salad mix in their new heated processing facility. Instead of keeping 70-hour work weeks and supervising two-full time employees, as she does in the summer, Megan DeLeeuw will work alone in her hoop house listening to books on tape—Anna Karenina was vanquished in just three weeks this winter. And on cold, cloudy days—the days when it’s not so much fun to be in “the hoop”—Dan Bair contemplates law school. While he weighs his career options, the plants will hold on.

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Lou Blouin is co-founder of Found Michigan. Email him at lou@foundmichigan.org.

 

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4 Comments

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Maureen Bettencourt on January 20, 2013 at 3:45 pm.

Would putting compost bins inside help? They generate a lot of heat.

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Garnet Bruell on January 22, 2013 at 4:56 pm.

Great article. I was an intern with farmer Dan this past fall and it was one of the best experiences. I’m glad to hear he’s tucking those little suckers in. It’s amazing to me how just this simple environmental change can make such a drastic difference in the idea of seasonality. We need more fresh produce up here in the cold months. I bet today, which is sunny as anything but frozen everywhere else, is a great time to be in the hoop.

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Marc on January 23, 2013 at 1:17 pm.

There is a small startup called NiftyHoops that has built close to one hundred of these things. I think they are the only hoop house builder in the Great Lakes too.

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