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Farmers go low-tech to grow in winter

A farm in winter in Northwest Michigan

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KAI RYSSDAL: Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm gave her state of the state address earlier this week. As you might have figured in a state walloped by the combination of the recession and Detroit's continuing problems, it was a grim affair. Not much extra money for anything.

So if you've been putting off your dream of seeing the World's Largest Stove, at the Michigan State Fair, you better act quickly. Granholm wants to cut the fair. This summer's will be the last.

When it started 160 years ago it was a way for farmers to keep up to date on agricultural technology. In present-day Michigan, fair or no, farmers are still innovating. Way up near the northern tip of the mitten, they've figured out how to stretch their growing season with plastic.

Lou Blouin introduces us to something called hoop-house farming.


LOU BLOUIN: A hoop house is little more than big sheets of plastic stretched covered-wagon-style over a series of metal arches. But these no-tech greenhouses can trap enough heat from the sun and soil to keep things like spinach, kale, and even salad greens growing well into the winter.

BLOUIN: What would you say the temperature is in here right now?

NICK WELTY: I don't know. I'm sort of a bad judge. I've been crawling around in the snow, it feels kind of warm.

Nick Welty runs the garden operation at Black Star Farms in rural northwest Michigan.

WELTY: I don't know. It might be 40 or so. I mean, if it's real sunny, which we haven't had yet, it'll be up to 85.

Like a lot of farmers, Welty doubles the economic punch of the farm's hoop house by using it to grow tomatoes in the summer, in addition to cool weather crops in the winter.

WELTY: Now if you do the economics of it, for $10,000 we have this structure. And by year two I will have netted enough to have paid for the structure.

Those numbers made sense to Jenny Tutlis and Jon Watts of nearby Meadowlark Farm. The have two hoop houses and are able to deliver fresh veggies to customers into January.

JENNY TUTLIS: For us, the significance financially for our family is, like, huge. You know, we make a living now from our farm, and we don't have to work off-farm.

Tutlis and her husband, Jon Watts, can afford the investment into hoop houses largely because of their business model -- called CSA, or community supported agriculture. With CSA, people invest in the farm upfront as shareholders and get a box of food every week as a return on that investment.

Most important, says Watts, investors shoulder risk right alongside farmers, which is no small thing when it comes to winter growing.

JON WATTS: We had a really bad northwester in the spring, and our straps broke on our roll-up vent on the side. And so, the snow came in and killed everything in the house.

TUTLIS: I came in right away and just wrote to the shareholders that were expecting to get greens the next week, and everyone was really, like, "We understand, you know, this is a risk." And, "We're in it with you." And, "It's OK, you know, we're here." And that's huge. Like, that's hardcore food folks. They really, I think, appreciate and get it about eating local food.

Season extension may be one of the hottest trends nationally in local organic farming. But despite their own success, Tutlis and Watts are still both cautious about recommending hoop houses to other farmers. There are still a lot of unknowns. Most of all, whether farmers can afford it. Most of the hoop houses in Michigan are subsidized by a Michigan State University research program.

And there's also the issue of whether you can find enough people that like to eat kale and other hardy winter greens. Tutlis and Watts say their extended season boxes will always be propped up by beets and potatoes from the previous fall, the kinds of things Michigan localvores have always eaten in the winter.

In Traverse City, Mich., I'm Lou Blouin for Marketplace.

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