Saint Mary’s sustainable farm grows with construction of hoop house
Katelyn Waldschmidt | Tuesday, November 14, 2023
Due partly to self-pick produce and flowers, popularity of the Saint Mary’s sustainable farm has spiked this year. And despite the growing season being over, the farm continues its plans to flourish.
During the past few weeks volunteers have started prepping the barn for spring. One step is installing a new hoop house.
“A hoop house is more or less an unheated greenhouse that is shelled in plastic rather than glass, the way a classic greenhouse would be,” farm director Christopher Cobb said. The plastic rolls up on rollers like a blind would, enabling one to influence the temperature in the hoop house.
Matthew Insley, manager of the farm, laid out three benefits of the hoop house.
“The first is just to grow higher quality crops,” Insley said. “Anytime you have a covered protected space, you’re going to grow higher quality produce.”
In a hoop house, farmers can control water, temperature and wind — all of which contribute to disease and insect presence.
The second benefit of the hoop house is an extended growing season, Insley added.
“The second major thing is something we call shoulder seasons — that is late into the fall and early into the spring,” he said. “We can produce food in a time where we otherwise wouldn’t have enough heat or frost protection.”
Finally, Insley said the hoop house allows volunteers to spend more time with the crops.
“Thirdly, it’s a protected space,” Insley said. “Say we have groups out there, and it starts raining. We can step in the hoop house and continue working when we may have been rained out.”
To highlight how much longer the farm will be able to grow crops to the hoop house, Insley explained the growing timeline in the region.
“Typically, you have to wait until last frost, so around here it’s like May 15. But now, we’ll probably be in February planting crops,” he said. “I would usually give our season through Halloween, but now we’ll easily go through the whole first semester, just through mid-December.”
The hoop house was constructed Nov. 2. Almost everything was completed by faculty, student and community volunteers.
“It’s like an erector set or a giant set of tinker toys,” Cobb said. “When we started out, all the materials were on a big flatbed. It was about 5,000 pounds of materials. There was a lot of measuring to make sure where everything needed to go and then the driving of all the foundation pieces.”
Insley said the structure was looking pretty much like a hoop house by 9:30 a.m.
“Before you knew it we had 20 or 25 hoops and we started to put the receiver parts down the side,” Insley said.
The next step was putting horizontal beams along the side to connect all of the vertical frames, Cobb added.
”Once those were in place, we began putting the skin on the hoops,” he said.
This last step remains unfinished. Cobb and Insley said it was too windy to get the entire plastic skin onto the frame.
“It’s an involved process to pull plastic over this massive, 96-foot-long hoop house,” Insley said.
In addition to the completion of the hoop house, Cobb and Insley discussed other future projects the sustainable farm has in store. One project is graveling two lanes — one along south side of the farm and another up the middle of the farm site — for truck access to the site. The goal is to have trucks bring leaves from campus to the farm site for composting, but the ground is currently too soft to do so, Cobb said. He also said they would like to install formal gates on the deer fencing.
Insley said the next big thing on his mind was the bee colonies the farm will be getting in the spring. Morgan Carr-Markell, an assistant professor of biology at Saint Mary’s, will help the farm with the bees.
“Dr. Carr-Markell is an expert in pollinators, and she’s done a lot of work with bees, so she’s going to be helping us manage those,” Insley said.
Insley said he is also looking forward to expanding flower production.
“I’m actually taking a course on learning more about flower production and hoping we can have more flowers,” Insley said.
Cobb and Insley both thanked the Sisters of the Holy Cross for its donation that made construction of the hoop house possible.
“This kind of thing just does not happen without major gifts of support, and we feel really grateful,” Insley said.