‘Hoop Houses’ Extend Ohio Growing Season

Mike Laughlin of Northridge Organic Farm near Johnstown checks his December leaf lettuce crop planted in a 'high tunnel' or 'hoop house.'(Photo: Tom Borgerding/WOSU News)
Mike Laughlin of Northridge Organic Farm near Johnstown checks his December leaf lettuce crop planted in a 'high tunnel' or 'hoop house.'(Photo: Tom Borgerding/WOSU News)

Fresh, Ohio grown vegetables in December and January? It’s more common now at winter farm markets and on restaurant menus. Consumer demand and new technology have combined to extend Ohio’s growing season into winter months.

Across Ohio, roadside and city-sidewalk farmers markets are a summer and early fall treat. Field ripened tomatoes, peppers, onions, sweet corn, carrots and asparagus in their own season. Jennifer Mullen operates one of the city’s older urban farm markets, Mae’s Produce, at the corner of Parsons and Marion on the south side. During warm months, Ohio’s fruit and vegetable bounty is displayed on the market’s shelves.

“All Ohio grown, we have an Amish family that grows all of our stuff for us in the summertime.” Says Jennifer Mullen.

But, at first frost, usually in mid to late October Ohio’s growing season ends. Imagine my surprise then when this week in early December, I noticed the corner shelf stacked with fresh cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and onions.

Q: How is it that you’re able to stay open year round. Where do you get the product to sell everyday, especially in the winter months? Mullen: We get a lot of stuff shipped in from Georgia and West Virginia and across the country and we go to West Virginia a couple of times a week and pick it all up.” Says Mullen.

Produce at Mae's Produce

The stock at Mae’s Produce comes from
out of state once the temperature
drops locally. However the introduction
of “Hoop Houses” may allow local
growers to extend the growing season.

In the future though, Mullen might not have to make such long trips. The federal Department of Agriculture reports more Ohio suppliers, small farmers and urban gardeners, are using a technology called ‘hoop houses’ to extend the growing season into December, January and February despite sometimes harsh winters.

On a sunny early December morning, surrounded by frosted fields and meadows, Mike Laughlin drives his all terrain Cub Cadet to the back of his 20 acre farm. We enter a 100 foot long, 12 foot high plastic covered structure. He calls it a ‘high tunnel,’ and it covers the soil on a small portion of the larger field.

“What it does is offer you some protection from the weather outside in order to extend the growing season.” Says Mike Laughlin.

Laughlin explains a ‘high tunnel’ or ‘hoop house’ differs from a traditional greenhouse, which often has concrete floors and potted plants. Hoop house crops are planted directly into the field soil, covered by steel hoops and polyethylene. The structure traps daytime heat and keeps the soil warm. On nights when the temperature drops too low, Laughlin places an extra cover over the plants.

Q: Is this lettuce here that you’ve got in front of us? Laughlin: “Yes, most of this high tunnel right now is planted with lettuce. And that’s a great crop for us for winter. It’s a loose leaf mix that we’ll go through and cut. Then it will re-grow. It’s just a wonderful, wonderful crop.”

During cold months, Laughlin sells his lettuce to several independent restaurants in Columbus. Laughlin says he first got interested in extending the growing season as a response to consumers looking for early spring fresh produce.

“You know the driving factor was to be able to produce an earlier crop for the farm markets. You know to get there to be the first one there with tomatoes, to be the first one there with any crop actually.” Says laughlin.

Laughlin says his 20 acre farm near Johnstown generates about $150,000 annually. As high tunnels and hoop houses multiply in Ohio, the federal Department of Agriculture says the number of winter farmer’s markets keeps growing. Ohio is now the 5th leading state in the number of winter’s farmers markets with 50. The extended growing season has also lead to more demand for fresh produce from larger institutions like prisons, university dining halls, and local schools. All potential sources of more income for small farms.

  • Erin Harvey, The Kale Yard

    Wonderful story! Thanks so much for sharing this important development in our local agriculture and food security. I do want to add that Ohio’s growing season doesn’t end as soon as the first frost strikes. It is true that tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers will be lost, but there are many cool-weather loving crops that thrive and even improve in flavor after the first frost. And while I do have some things “under cover” in my field, I was still harvesting uncovered head lettuce, kale, carrots, beets, leeks, escarole, and spinach from my field all the way through the end of November (and anticipate harvesting some of these things through the end of the year). Part of the bigger picture is re-learning the habits of all the vegetables that can be grown in Ohio – and then how to cook them!

  • Chris Coulon

    The US Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has a program that helps eligible growers pay for a portion of a high tunnel. The first applications will be reviewed for funding January 18, 2013. Interested growers can contact their local NRCS office. Locate your office at this link http://offices.sc.egov.usda.gov/locator/app. You can also contact Chris Coulon at 614-255-2471 if you need assistance finding your local office.