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Wednesday, June 20,2012

A hoop house rises

A new urban agriculture project hopes to support both farmers markets and the surrounding neighborhood

by Sam Inglot

Picture an old-fashioned barn raising: Rural farmers bustling about in straw hats and overalls, hammering nails and hoisting wooden beams above their heads. 

Picture it in an urban Lansing neighborhood.

The construction of the new Urbandale Farm hoop house on Friday on the 700 block of South Hayford Avenue was a “modern-day counterpart” to the old-time barn raising, Linda Anderson said. 

Anderson is a co-founder and co-director of the Lansing Urban Farm Project. She, along with Laura Delind, started the nonprofit urban gardening group in 2010 and worked with the city and county to get funding and land for the hoop house project. 

It took nearly 11 hours of labor from over 30 volunteers coupled with a handful of mandatory water breaks to finish the hoop house.

“It was wonderful. It reminded me of how close knit and supportive the local food and local farming community is in the Lansing area,” Anderson said. 

The 30-foot-by-48-foot, 1,500-square-foot hoop house resembles a pole barn made entirely out of metal poles for the frame and a translucent tarp for the walls and roof. A hoop house is not a greenhouse, however. They both house fledgling produce and are intended to extend a crop growing season, but a greenhouse is a permanent structure whereas a hoop house is more of a “crop protection device,” as John Biernbaum, a professor of horticulture at Michigan State University who helped with the project put it.

A $4,000 community development grant from the city and matching funds from the Ingham County Land Bank paid for the hoop house on property the Land Bank donated, said Ingham County Treasurer Eric Schertzing, who chairs the Land Bank. The project came in $700 under budget. This is the first time the county has dedicated resources to this kind of project, he added. The Land Bank acquires tax-foreclosed properties then sells them for redevelopment.

“A house rises in Lansing, a hoop house,” he said while standing in the shade of the finished structure. “We’re trying to promote economic models that are sustainable, and this is one of the next pieces.”

Supporting urban farm projects like this has benefits twofold, Schertzing said. By expanding the growing season with the hoop house, the farm will be sustainable financially by providing produce to Lansing-area farmers markets. 

It’s not unusual for hoop houses to pay for themselves in two to four years, according to Anderson.

Another benefit is such projects build a better sense of community, Schertizing said.

“The Lansing Urban Farm Project has captured a lot of young folks’ attention in particular and convinced them, ‘Hey, Lansing is pretty cool. I think I’m going to stay here,’” Schertzing said. 

Over half the volunteers were from a diverse group of volunteers with MSU Student Organic Farm. 

Originally from India and living in Lansing since last summer, Vaidy Lakshminarayanapuram, 55, said he worked between India and the United States for 13 years with General Electric before retiring in February, at which time he began work with the MSU group. 

“I’m switching from my career in the corporate life to that of a farmer,” he laughed. 

Organizers with the Urban Farm Project said the hoop house goal is to ramp up food production. The harvested produce will be sold on location at the Urbandale Farm Stand every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and at the Allen Street Farmers Market on Wednesdays from 2:30 p.m. until 7 p.m. 

“We felt the need for a stable, sustainable food system in a larger place where we could more intensively raise food,” Delind said. “We also want this place to benefit people in the area as a training space, a commons and a neighborhood anchor.”

During the first season, the farm will largely be run by Anderson, Delind, Urban Farm Project apprentices and Sarah Fillius, who will be the on-site manager of Urbandale Farm and actually lives in a Land Bank-owned property next door to the plot.

“As it progresses, ultimately we’ll invite more and more residents to help out and hopefully over the course of months and years they’ll become partners in the enterprise,” Delind said. “We’re hoping it will be an asset to the neighborhood.”

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