reWorking Michigan: Hoop Houses Allow Farmers to Extend Growing Season

EAST LANSING, MI – ReWorking Michigan examines our evolving economy, as the people of the Great Lake State explore new ways to make a living and build a future.

Winter farmers markets are expanding across the country and in Michigan. On our reWorking Michigan Monday report, WKAR's Gretchen Millich shows us how hoop houses allow farmers to grow and sell fresh vegetables through the winter.

Last year, Meridian Township experimented with winter farmers markets at Meridian mall, once a month, from December through April. They were so popular, now they're doing them twice a month.

Recently, David Detrisac of Okemos was shopping at the mall. He was surprised when he stumbled upon the farmers market.

"Surprised, but also very encouraged," says Detrisac. "Because we try to support local farmers, and I believe that is much better than buying stuff that's shipped in from Mexico."

Winter markets are expanding all over Michigan. For the first time, Michigan made the U. S. Department of Agriculture's top 10 list for the number of winter markets.

For farmers, having fresh produce to sell in the winter means building hoop houses.Rebecca Titus graduated from Michigan State University in horticulture, then went back to work on her family farm in Leslie. She and her father, Paul Titus, started experimenting with hoop houses about four years ago. Now, they have several.

"These are unheated, passive solar hoop houses," says Rebecca Titus. "So, there's obviously no heat, and there's a poly covering on them, plastic covering on just plain metal hoops. It's a pretty simple operation, but it yields a lot."

The hoop houses are used year-round. In the spring, for an early crop of tomatoes, then for tomatoes and peppers over the summer, and in the winter, lots vegetables.

"We have here Red Russian kale, dinosaur kale, and curly kale," says Rebecca Titus. "These were put in a little later than I wanted , so they're not as big as they should be, but I think they're still doing really beautifully."

There's also Swiss chard, cilantro, bok choy, romaine lettuce and lots of spinach.

Paul Titus says it's been hard getting used to farming in the cold weather.

"In the wintertime, we're cutting spinach, and sometimes it's only 33 degrees, " says Paul Titus. "You cut for four hours, and pretty soon you can't feel your fingers, and you're bent over all the time. So, it's not for the faint of heart. It's not a project you really want to go into unless you've really got the ambition and the work ethic to do it."

"But, it's a nice income," he continues. "And, with my daughter, it's actually a two-family operation. Any farmer can tell you that as they expand and the kids come into the operation, you can't stay the same. You've got two incomes coming off that same amount of property. And it keeps our customers happy, because you can't beat winter production for spinach. The greens are just so much sweeter."

"Spinach from a hoop house in the winter is just the best thing ever," says Rebecca Titus. "It's so sweet and so tender."

Adam Montri is an outreach specialist with the Department of Horticulture at MSU. He helps farmers extend their growing season with hoop houses. He has his own farm and sells produce at a year-round farmers market in Bath.

Montri says more young people are getting into farming, along with retired baby boomers, and most of them want a year-round income.

Rebecca Titus likes it, too, and she intends to keep expanding her farm. With that extra produce, Titus says she'll look into selling at the Allen Street Farmer's Market on Lansing's east side. The Allen Neighborhood Center plans to expand their market into the winter months next year.