Using Hoophouses to Produce More Local Food in Northern Climates
July 26, 2016
By Megan Mendenhall
Washtenaw County in Michigan is estimated to produce about one percent of the food residents consume, the majority of which grows during the short summer months. What this means practically is that dollars are leaving the local economy at a rapid rate. Working to change this imports-oriented dynamic is Ann Arbor-based farmer and entrepreneur Jeff McCabe.
“Farm more seasons. Grow more food.” That’s the motto for Nifty Hoops, McCabe’s social enterprise that is growing the local farming movement in southeast Michigan through the strategic use of hoophouses. Similar to greenhouses, hoophouses are designed to insulate crops and extend the growing season, which is incredibly valuable for farmers in colder climates.
RSF recently made a loan to Nifty Hoops to support the scaling of its operations.
20 Hoophouses in 20 Days
The idea for Nifty Hoops was born out of food system activism in Ann Arbor. In 2008, McCabe co-founded Selma Café, a one-meal-a-week event that he hosted at his home. Organized as Friday breakfasts, each gathering was attended by up to 280 people. Over the course of four years, tens of thousands of meals were served, raising $400,000.
The proceeds from the meals were used to make loans to farmers who wanted to construct hoophouses. Once the building materials were purchased, volunteers who attended the Selma Café returned to assemble the hoophouses in day-long community events, similar to barn raisings.
“People are hungry to support the re-birth of local food systems – food with a relationship and a story,” says McCabe.
With each new hoophouse, McCabe observed farmer after farmer struggle with the installation process. Unsatisfied, he turned his attention to creating his own design using modularity and pre-cut materials to facilitate easy assembly.
Using his new hoophouse design and recruiting Selma Café volunteers, McCabe launched Nifty Hoops in 2011 with a burst effort to build 20 hoophouses in 20 days.
More Value per Farmed Acre
Four-season agriculture is a challenging industry in the northern climates of the US. Chilly temperatures and frost can kill or stop the growing cycle of most produce. Hoophouses address this issue by providing an opportunity to extend the growing season, and in some cases allow farmers to grow year-round. By growing food outside the traditional growing season, farmers are better able to capture higher value for their produce.
“When it’s a short growing season, people think of farmers’ markets as a place you go for tourism,” says McCabe. “Once you start to feed people year-round, they can start to orient around a different approach to making food purchases.”
Nifty Hoops offers the farmer a way to extend their growing season and increase yields dramatically with limited expense. Additional benefits of hoophouses include energy conservation, job creation, and community engagement. For instance, Nifty Hoops works with local schools, youth organizations, and other community members on day-long installation events.
“People love to feel like they connect to these farmers,” says McCabe. “So many of us want to find ways to support them—as customers, as volunteers, and as advocates.”
Furthermore, hoophouses also allow greater ease in diversifying crops, which in turn can capture more value per farmed acre. For example, moving from corn and soybean crops to diversified food farming practices can change yields from approximately $350 per acre for commodity crops to $80,000 per acre in diversified fresh produce.
“Nifty Hoops is revolutionizing the hoop house space and improving the livelihood of many small-scale farmers,” says Meredith Storton, social enterprise lending associate for RSF. “The company not only offers a superior product, but Jeff also engages farmers and the larger community in a vital conversation about rebuilding the local food system.”
Currently, Nifty Hoops primarily serves the Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois markets. But the social enterprise has plans to replicate its model in other progressive food regions such as Boulder, CO; Minneapolis, MN; Madison, WI; and Burlington, VT. The company also intends to offer a complete suite of services, from do-it-yourself hoophouse kits to full-service installation packages.
“When people build a hoophouse with Nifty Hoops, they’re joining a family—we connect them to one another,” says McCabe. “Working with RSF feels similar to this. We see a lot of potential—not just financing—in connecting with a community that is working to make change happen.”
Megan is marketing associate for RSF.