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Twin Cities Daily Planet: Hoop dreams: Homegrown veggies in January?

TWIN CITIES DAILY PLANET

“Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life.” Immanuel Kant, German philosopher, 1724-1804.

Ever do this? You’re confidently traveling your chosen path when you suddenly notice that the landscape isn’t what you’d hoped for. You pause and wonder: Should I have taken a different turn a few miles back?

I remember being brought up short years ago, when the choice between paper and plastic at the checkout counter was muddied by new information about the amount of pollution produced in manufacturing paper bags. And of course, we all now know that what was once vice is now virtue — wine, olive oil, coffee and chocolate. That is, until the next volley of scientific studies.

It happened to me, again, a few weekends ago. There I was, sitting in a large lecture hall at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls, comfortably dressed because I, along with the 200 other hopefuls in the room, had signed up for six hours of seat-time.

We’d swarmed in from all over — Twin Cities’ suburbs and exurban areas, far-flung communities throughout Wisconsin. We were plant nursery operators, commercial vegetable growers, farmers looking to diversify, and a healthy sprinkling of non-agricultural professionals exploring a next career.

We’d been lured by the seminar’s siren call: the latest news about a fairly simple technology with a rather amazing promise — year-round vegetable growing in our land of ice and snow.

Imagine: locally grown spinach and lettuce, kale and beets in November and December, and March! Maybe we could reduce the truckloads of produce from California, South America and overseas. Not only would our families benefit from fresher food, but local growers could generate more business. Could this be the way to sustainable agriculture for the Upper Midwest?

We were attentive. We were also spread out in the room. Any chair not occupied with a body was draped with coats and scarves — emblems of our climate. But the wool and fleece all disappeared as our eyes feasted on larger-than-life slides of lush veggies, super-sized berries, and even cherry trees growing in bubbles of warmth created by — hoop houses.

You’ve probably seen them. Hoop houses are made from sheets of sturdy, translucent plastic stretched over frames of arching metal or plastic pipe, or bent wood staves. They’re temporary structures that sit above bare ground. Their plastic skin of agricultural grade polyethylene is replaced every three to four years because it weathers and weakens in the sun and cold.

Dr. William Lamont, a visiting professor from Pennsylvania State University, took us on a PowerPoint tour of hoop houses at work all over the world. Dozens sat along European seashores, clusters nestled in rugged mountain valleys, and small clutches created islands of agriculture within densely populated regions of Asia.

He said the structures, also referred to as high tunnels, are versatile. They can be 14 or 24 feet wide or more, and can stretch from 16 to 96, to over 200 feet in length. And virtually all are well over 6 and a-half feet tall. Many growers add heating elements to expand their utility.

Lamont then presented an interesting caution: The more permanent you make the structure, the more you become subject to taxation. And then, of course, there’s the question of what to do with yards of waste plastic every time you replace the covering.

“Can I burn the plastic?” a voice called out. Not in a home fire because the plastics will release toxic dioxins, responded Lamont. But, he said, the sheeting will burn cleanly in an industrial incinerator at 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and the material can be recycled.

Add a foundation or elements that make them a permanent structure and they’re taxed as real property, confirmed Assistant Hennepin County Assessor Bill Effertz in a recent phone call.

Increased taxes. Waste plastic by the yard. No industrial burner or large recycler close at hand. Hmmm. And yet, more and more growers are adopting hoop houses because they provide a marketing edge.

“For me, the hoop house serves two purposes: it extends my season and it allows me to provide early tomatoes to other marketers,” said seminar attendee, Jack Buchanan, owner of Jack’s Fresh Produce, Hancock, Wis. Buchanan explained that he added hot water heat to his hoop house in order to get his plants into the ground in March.

This is key to Kent Hedeen as well. With his wife, he operates Kent’s Plants, specializing in perennial plants and trees for this part of the country. His garden center’s hoop houses are easily visible from Highway 8, near St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, about 80 miles northeast of St. Paul.

Of his five high tunnels, four measure 14’X23′. By using supplemental heating, he can put plants in them in March. After the growing season, he uses the vacated hoop houses to shelter trees and shrubs over the winter. When you step inside you can feel just how much they cut the wind.

The hoop houses provide an edge, but Kent is aware that the practice isn’t sustainable at its core.

“Here I am, in a ‘green’ business, but I’m using structures covered in plastic,” which is hard to get rid of or recycle in this part of the county, lamented Kent. “I know a larger operator who uses loads of hoop houses. He pulls the weathered plastic off with machines, bundles it and transports it to the recycler.” Because Kent’s is a smaller enterprise “transporting my plastic to Chicago or elsewhere just doesn’t make business sense.”

So why not build permanent glass greenhouse and avoid the pollution issue altogether?

Well consider this: One online vendor advertises a 16′ X 96′ high tunnel kit for $2,240. According to experts, a team of friends can assemble the structure by following the provided instructions. On the other hand, another cyber-retailer offers an 18′ X 24′ steel-framed greenhouse with rigid polycarbide walls for $9,600. And that doesn’t include cost of assembly.

Given the short and long-term investment levels and environmental trade-off, what do we do? Do we want to eat locally grown foods and to support our local economies, or is it smarter to ship foods thousands of miles all year long? Can we make recycling centers easier to access? Should we channel waste plastics to industrial burners? Is it really a “clean” strategy?

I guess the answers depend on what we want — long term — for our food, environment and economy. Can we create a common vision to guide our choices? Can we have a goal clear enough to provide direction when we come to a fork in the road?

Forks in the Road is an occasional column by Sylvia Burgos, a public relations professional who lives in Wisconsin farm country, and commutes to St. Paul.
She podcasts and blogs about politics and food at Artisan Bread, Cheese and Wine.

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