Ohio farmers use 'hoop houses' for winter growing

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WESTERVILLE (AP) -- You can expect something more than snow to dot Ohio farmland this winter. Increasingly, domed plastic structures are popping up on farms around the state, aimed at keeping local produce flowing even when weather turns nasty.

Inside those structures, everything from salad greens to herbs will grow, warmed by the winter sun.

The domes, called hoop houses, stand as testament to the "eat local" movement that has sparked increasing demand for locally grown foods.

Val Jorgensen will have an entire crop of kale, spinach, lettuce, Swiss chard and herbs growing outside this winter on her 65-acre organic farm in Westerville.

With demand up for the products grown by Jorgensen Farms, she invested several thousand dollars this fall to build five hoop houses. The 20x96 foot enclosed plastic structures will allow her to extend her growing season.

"The demand is greater than the supply right now. Even with the hoop houses, I won't be able to meet all of the orders I've gotten for local organic foods," Jorgensen said. "Ohio farmers are able to produce enough for local farmers markets, consumers and retailers during the summer months, but often have to rely more on shipping in foods grown in other areas to meet demand in the winter."

The increased crop is key for her to meet her increased customer demands, which includes Jeni's Ice Cream and several catering companies and restaurants.

One reason for the increased demand is that grocers are embracing "buy local" based on growing consumer demand.

Meijer in August announced that it plans to increase by 5 percent the amount of locally grown fruits and vegetables it sells in its stores. The goal is to ensure that nearly one-third of all produce Meijer sells this season comes from local producers, said Scott Calandra, a produce buyer for the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based chain.

And Kroger and Giant Eagle both obtain a majority of their produce from local sources, as do other grocers, including Whole Foods.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that demand for local and organic foods is soon going to overtake supply, said Sharon Sachs, an owner of Women Farm, a Columbus-based company that helps women start or expand farms.

"As farms get smaller and local foods emphasis grows, there is more opportunity to get more people into the farming business, particularly women," she said. "The expansion of farmers markets coupled with a growing demand by restaurants and chefs to work directly with growers and producers has resulted in the need for growers to expand their growing capacity and growing season."

Hoop houses, especially in climates such as Ohio's, are one way of doing that, Sachs said.

Hoop houses, also called high tunnels, are similar to greenhouses but are less expensive and require no artificial energy source, according to the Agriculture Department. The structures are typically made using wood or metal covered in layers of plastic, which trap daytime air inside and minimize heat loss at night.

Depending on the size of the high tunnel, the cost can range from about $2,000-$15,000, Jorgensen said. There are those who'd be glad to see more of those hoop houses pop up.

Michael Jones, who owns the Greener Grocer, a local organic food store, said farmers who are able to continue supplying produce beyond the usual central Ohio growing season are in strong demand.

"We could sell five times more local foods than what we are getting from growers," he said. "The issue is being able to fill the demand for orders.

"It's taken awhile for farmers to see that there is a strong demand for local foods, and it takes more time to get production up to meet that demand."

Jones, also a spokesman for Local Matters, a central Ohio nonprofit group that supports local food, said the goal for many retailers is to sell more local foods.

"As you grow it, we'll sell it," he said.

As more retailers espouse that sentiment, more growers are realizing the benefits of expanding their growing season through the use of hoop houses, especially in colder states such as Ohio, said Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, a Washington-based trade group.

"More younger and new farmers are getting into agriculture and are finding that with the addition of hoop houses, they don't need a lot of land to grow fruits and vegetables. They not only can get a farm up and started this way, they can also earn additional money and expand their operations."

That was the case for Mike Laughlin, who operates the 20-acre Northridge Organic Farm in Johnstown. Laughlin has two hoop houses, which he uses to get a head start on spring planting of greens, broccoli, cabbage and other cold-tolerant crops.

He said the structures have been so successful for the farm that he plans to add at least two more.

"Anytime you can get produce earlier than you'd normally get it is an advantage," Laughlin said. "People are looking for local foods and if you have it, they're wanting to buy it.

"The longer you can produce local foods, the more additional income you can generate. Retailers and consumers are always excited to get their hands on the products. Word travels pretty quickly in terms of what growers are doing and how they are growing.

"There's an awful lot of demand out there for these products."

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Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com

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