It is 23 degrees at Green Gardens Community Farm in Battle Creek on this gray day, "warm" compared to the -19 recorded three times so far this winter. Farmers Trent and Ruthie Thompson lead the way through above-the-knee, crusty snow for a tour of their Nifty Hoops hoop houses erected in the spring of 2013 with a lot of help from the Nifty Hoops crew, family and friends. Think "barn raising" with a modern twist: galvanized steel framing and massive polyethylene sheeting.
The goal on this 20-acre farm is year-round food production, the scale of which can only be described as epic. At 21,600 square feet (over half an acre), the Thompson’s five 30 foot by 144 foot high tunnels provide a first-to-market advantage for spring and summer crops and local eaters a winter source of veggie deliciousness at locations like the People’s Food Co-op and the indoor farmers’ market on Bank Street, both in Kalamazoo.
Projections for this winter’s bounty have been scaled back due to early and prolonged extreme weather conditions. Still, by the end of the winter season (mid-April in the hoops), Trent and Ruthie expect to harvest 6,000 bunches of kale, 700 bunches of collards, 3,000 bunches of chard, 3,320 bunches of carrots, 168 pounds of salad greens, and 800 pounds of spinach.
We stand in the iron clad clutch of Old Man Winter ensconced in a (relatively) warm plastic cocoon, amid row upon row of seemingly endless green and a smattering of deep red: kale, carrot tops, collards, beets and chard. Trent plucks a spinach leaf, stem intact, and hands it to me. Sweet, nutty and to the tooth, this crop is nothing like its comparatively delicate summer brethren. Freezing has concentrated its sugars and made it hardy. On short, cold days they stop growing "and just hang out," he explains, until the days lengthen and the structures are warmed by the sun.
Giant sheets of snow cascade off the sloped shaped roof above us as we walk along the outermost path spanning the length of the hoop house. Trent explains a gothic style structure works best to reduce the weighty accumulation of snow and ice which, with other configurations, can cause the roof framing to collapse. And the benefits to growing food under hoops seem as endless as the rows of green. "These structures are our insurance policy against extreme fluctuations in weather and help with disease and pest management." The Thompsons are investing in electricity, frost-free water lines and hydrants to further allow for adaptation to year-round growing (and income generation, which typically stalls from November through April for most farmers).
Farming is capital intensive, which presents a formidable barrier for beginning farmers like Trent and Ruthie. So how can they afford all these hoop houses and supporting infrastructure? A conventional loan wasn’t an option. According to Trent, "the state offered passive solar structure loans at a good interest rate, but they would only fund a small portion of what we needed. We knew we needed a half acre under hoops to be a viable operation. Scale does matter, even for a small producer like us. Other commercial sources of capital may have been available for the full amount, but we didn’t think we could pay the higher interest rates. So we turned to our customers."
The idea of financially linking consumers and producers to create a stronger local food system can be best explained within the context of Slow Money, a conceptual cousin to the Slow Food movement born almost three decades ago to promote traditional cuisine and sustainable farming practices. It was around these principles — nurture capital, care of the commons, focusing on food, farms and fertility because they matter, and community because community matters — the Thompson’s obtained all of the funding needed from loyal customers they’ve earned over six years of growing food in Battle Creek. Moreover, these loans were set at a mutually attractive interest rate — less than what the farmers would pay for a conventional loan, and more than their customers would earn from a conventional savings account.
When asked why their CSA and farmers’ market customers were willing to take on the risk, Trent offered this simple answer: "Trust. Our customers know us and know our product. They know how hard we work. They want to see small local businesses succeed. They want their dollars to stay in the community to strengthen the community."
As for the half-acre’s worth of green growing by our feet, and in the other four high tunnels, Trent confesses aloud that he wondered more than once: How are we going to sell all this kale? He knows demand is skyrocketing for locally sourced everything. Still, there is pressure what with loan repayments looming large, an increasing customer base depending on them for food that is grown without chemicals, and the relationships and trust they have built over six years.
It turns out a lot of that kale was sold at the People’s Food Co-op in Kalamazoo. Rosie Florian, Produce Manager, is effusive in her praise of the partnership: "When I visit their booth at the Kalamazoo Farmers Market, I see Trent and Ruthie connecting with their customers. They know their customer’s names. They share recipes with people who may not know how to use a certain vegetable. Our PFC shoppers come to us and ask for Green Gardens’ product. Their product is always 100 percent in quality, crispness; it’s always the right color, the same size and the consistency we depend on to offer our customers. The Co-op quadrupled in size, our ownership has grown, and local food purchasing dollars hit a record high of $435,000 in 2013, in part due to our relationship with growers like Trent and Ruthie."
Old Man may be an apt metaphor for winter, this being a particularly crotchety one. But these young, energetic, and unstoppable farmers have embraced innovative solutions to realize their passion for good food that is healthy and accessible to all … year round.
Donna McClurkan’s many outlets for local food advocacy include crafting occasional articles about the ways in which farmers’ markets, small scale, sustainable farmers and gardeners are transforming the way we eat. She lives in Kalamazoo.
Photos by Donna McClurkan
Ruthie Thompson in the Spring 2013 installing the first of five hoop houses.
Trent Thompson shows spinach in hoop house.
Kale from the Thompson hoop house.
Trent Thompson shows progress on early stage irrigation tubing installation.
Ruthie and Trent Thompson at the entry of one of their hoop houses.