Michigan State University is beating Mother Nature by taking farming indoors in an innovative way. The catalyst for the changes is the hoophouse.
An unusual partnership among foodservice staff, student farmers and faculty at 46,600-student Michigan State University is heralding a new era of sustainable and organic meals for on-campus foodservice venues. The catalyst for the partnership is the hoophouse.
Hoophouses are a revolutionary type of a passive solar greenhouse. The long, dome-shaped buildings consist of metal frames covered by double-thick polycarbonate sheeting. Solar energy actually heats the soil, keeping it pliable for four-season farming. These low-energy hoophouses enable students to farm year-round without harming the environment or depleting it of its natural resources.
The alliance between the school’s Culinary Services team and the on-site MSU Student Organic Farm, which began in 2008 with the Spartan Harvest Program, allows campus
dining halls to offer sustainable, 100% certified-organic produce that is grown right on campus.
The MSU Student Organic Farm is a 10-acre teaching farm, where the farm team has spent the last eight years developing hoophouse production and education methods for extending the Michigan growing season into the typically harsh Midwest winter.
Vennie Gore, assistant vice president for the Division of Residential and Hospitality Services, says, “We started about three years ago. The Student Organic Farm approached us to use some of their products.”
Faculty member Laurie Thorp, program director for RISE—Residential Initiative on the Study of the Environment—developed an early relationship with both Culinary Services and the Student Organic Farm, Gore adds.
The student farmers come from all different backgrounds and majors, and the alliance has presented a good opportunity for students who want to get into agriculture to understand what it means to go from farm to fork and all the different supply chains in between, Gore notes.
Providing local fresh produce can defer some of the shipping costs associated with importing greens and vegetables from warmer climates; it also helps reduce the carbon footprint associated with energy and fuel needed to haul such foods across the country, he adds.
Being able to grow microgreens, lettuce and other greens in the winter is quite a feat. East Lansing is “a rather dark, cloudy place in the winter,” Gore points out. “We’re in areas that can get several feet of snow in winter. But while visiting the hoophouses in January last year, even though it was below zero outside, inside I started to get hot and had to take my coat off.”
Gore knows of no other such partnerships on a university campus. “We’re probably one of the few that I know of as part of the academic side where there is a student-run organic farm where they grow and produce all their greens,” he says.
Yet MSU is “way too large” a school to think feasibly about growing all of its produce needs, Gore says. It currently takes two and a half suppliers to provide all the produce the university uses. Including the Student Organic Farm produce, MSU purchases some $2 million of local Michigan products yearly as part of its efforts to support the local farming economy.
While the foodservice partnership with the Student Organic Farm offsets food costs to some degree, “a better way to look at it is, it allows for us to provide, at a very reasonable cost, sustainable organics,” Gore says.
Mike Clyne, senior executive chef of Spartan Hospitality Group, says his menu has not changed much since going organic. “The vegetable group is basically the same. Cost-wise it might be a little more expensive,” Clyne says, adding that his restaurant customers are not likely to pay an additional dollar per dish simply for the inclusion of homegrown organic ingredients.
“We’re able to utilize the stuff in different ways where we charge enough to cover ourselves,” Clyne notes. “If we charge them a reasonable amount, we won’t lose our customers and will still be able to maintain quality.”
Eric Batten, executive chef at The Gallery at Snyder/Phillips dining hall—the campus’s largest on-site eatery, producing some 6,400 student meals a day or about 25% of the total meals on campus—has extended his involvement in the Spartan Harvest Program to actually sowing and reaping his own crops.
Once a week, Batten and student cook Anna Foster go to the MSU Student Organic Farm to harvest ingredients for a special monthly salad featured in The Gallery. But when they’re not culling from the garden, they’re tending it, actually working on the farm to grow their own produce for planned salads.
For The Gallery’s recent Fall Harvest Salad, Batten and Foster culled baby
romaine lettuce, celery seed and pumpkin seed from the garden, tossing it with a cider vinaigrette. For January and February, Batten and Foster plan to grow potatoes, garlic, greens and sunchokes, a tuber sometimes known as a Jerusalem artichoke. In March they hope to sow beets, carrots and spinach.
“We plan it out as we go,” Batten explains. He uses about six rows for his crops in the hoophouse; the growth time for most produce is about four weeks, he says. After harvesting they’ll cut the greens and set up for the next month by reworking the soil and replanting.
Batten takes gardening instruction from the organic farm’s manager, Tom Becker, and has learned much about hoophouse farming. For example, he and Foster have learned how to use compost to enrich the black soil in the hoophouse, which runs about three feet deep.
They also work the soil by adding other nutrients and water before planting.
“We think we’re breaking ground,” Batten says. “We’re doing it because it’s making sense and it’s fun and we’re getting a good response.”
The overall cost of food for the organic program currently limits the frequency of such meals. Yet, ongoing student demand for high-quality organics and sustainable foods continues to drive the project, he says.
“We do it once a month for a reason,” Batten says. “It is costly, but we keep at it to see where it goes. A lot of people would like to see it every day.”
Part of the joy of growing their own food allows farming students to taste tomatoes that “taste the way they’re supposed to,” he says. “Cucumbers taste like cucumbers. This is a step in the right direction.”
Because of the cost of building and maintaining the hoophouses, MSU has begun to try to raise money to keep the program growing. The goal is to make the project a self-funding program for future generations.
Funding MSU’s joint effort began Sept. 20 with the Hoophouse Gala, a five-course, high-end sampling of the Student Organic Farm’s featured crops, handled by Culinary Services’s chefs.
“We wanted to make sure we were keeping the project going as a self-sustaining program,” Gore says. The $100-a-plate, five-course dinner was held outdoors on the farm, complete with serving stations, live music and a variety of Michigan wines. The gala raised $16,750 that night, and Gore hopes to hit MSU’s initial goal of $20,000 with additional staff and faculty contributions.
“We are two-thirds of the way to getting our endowment. It’s $30,000 to get that established,” Gore says. The endowment would fund scholarships for future farmers. “Once we have the funding in place, it will make it easier for us to teach young farmers and still get the produce in our facilities.”
Clyne headed up the menu planning for the gala, working with the Student Organic Farm to buy lettuce and other greens. Clyne manages the campus’s full-service fine-dining establishment, the State Room, at its on-site hotel, the Kellogg Center, where he uses the farm’s produce in his recipes.
Clyne researched local food growers and purveyors for the feast, using local Michigan products as much as possible. Shrimp for the appetizer was harvested from a farm in nearby Okemos; smoked Michigan whitefish came from another area fish farm. Turkeys from a local poultry farm were smoked on site, and beef short ribs hailed from a local cattle farm.
Produce included local Michigan butternut squash, apples, cherries and spinach. “We took peppermint from the organic farms and made an herbal tea infusion,” Clyne says. “I made an awesome Napoleon using Michigan pears, apples and cherries, all the things we’re famous for.”
Clyne and seven chefs from across the campus packed everything in a truck and headed out to the farm, where some 180 guests were served. “We had great fun and dished up all the food right there on site.”
The event was “farm tie,” not black tie, and one female guest even arrived wearing an evening gown and cowboy boots, Gore recalls.
Clyne sees hoophouse farming as a huge boon for chefs and for the future of the year-round, sustainable organic movement. “I think it’s just going to be more from here,” he said. “It’s nice. This is how food should be.”
The alliance between Culinary Services and Spartan Harvest Program has been a real eye-opener for students, according to Batten. “Most of them are not even related to foodservice as far as their majors are concerned,” he says. “Yet many of them cook and are real foodies. It’s the Food Network generation.”
The farming experience has also been a revelation for Batten. “It’s something I got involved with as the opportunity arose,” says Batten. “It’s changing my mindset as well.” knows keeping it more natural is the way to go.”
Raising the Roof
Adam Montri, the hoophouse specialist for MSU, builds the units for himself and others and also maintains a hoophouse blog on the MSU Web site at http://hoophouse.msu.edu/index.php?q=blog.
Montri notes that standard widths for commercial hoophouses are usually 20 feet, 30 feet or 34/35 feet, depending on the manufacturer. Standard lengths for commercial production range from 48 feet to 144 feet. Narrower and shorter houses are available for residential use. Montri recently constructed an unheated 34-by-96-foot greenhouse on his own property, Ten Hens Farm in Bath, Mich. The process is detailed on a series of YouTube videos put together by the folks at sustainablefarmer.org in the summer of 2008.
Location of the hoophouse is important to ensure adequate sun exposure and wind resistance in the winter, Montri says. An east/west orientation is best for colder climates because the sun will be able to hit the entire length of the house all day long, ensuring maximum light exposure.
To help control high temperatures in the summer, Montri recommends units with sides that can be rolled up to release heat; all the houses at the Student Organic Farm have roll-up sides, he says. They also have vents in the peaks at both ends of the Gothic-shaped dome roof to allow more hot air to escape.