Saturday, March 01, 2008

HayGrove Hoops

Well, the time has come to share the Half Pint Farm HayGrove story. There has been a lot of press as of late concerning the use of hoophouse structures in flood-prone areas in Vermont, with the legislative eye fixed firmly on the Intervale, and by no small proxy, on little Half Pint Farm. So, here goes.
Inspired by the obvious benefit the Solo HayGrove structure afforded our neighbor Adam with early/extended season strawberries (not to mention the ability to harvest/weed/work on rainy days in the HayGrove), we decided to take the plunge and order a HayGrove to cover our 1/2 acre main field. This is no small investment ($20K or so) for a farm our size, but after researching HayGroves, we were impressed with their ease of set up, maintenance, square foot price ($1/sqft vs. others that are about $5/sqft of coverage), and overall benefit they would give us. Namely, we would be able to produce earlier and more of everything we grow to an increasingly demanding public well-aware of the benefits of locally produced organic food. Secondly, we would be able to manage our land better by decreasing weed pressure (not allowing rain to fall on paths, therefore fewer weeds germinating in paths), not to mention being able to harvest and weed on inclement weather days (normally you can't harvest tomatoes, beans and squashes on rainy days, as this spreads disease easily amongst plants). So, it was with confidence that we submitted our proposal to the Intervale Land Committee on October 8, 2007.
Normally, the Land Committee reviews all farmer proposals within a month. However, this time, the Intervale was under particular scrutiny because of issues concerning Intervale Compost Products regarding ANR rules and environmental regulations. Also, this was compounded by issues concerning possible Abenaki burial grounds near the compost operation. Mike Ives from the Seven Days newspaper did a great article on this back in October. Needless to say, the Intervale Center has been occupied with getting permits, holding press conferences, firing and hiring, and finally deciding to end the operation after 20 years of service to Burlington. Nice article about it here. So, what does this have to do with us?
The Intervale went to the City of Burlington to see if we needed to apply for a permit for our HayGrove structure - eventhough in the past, the City has not required a permit for these types of temporary structures. The City took a little longer to decide because of the issues Compost was going through, and meanwhile the Department of Agriculture was brought into the process. The Department of Agriculture said that hoophouses in floodways are not included in accepted agricultural practices (AAPs). The only thing they allow to be built on a floodway is a fence. Mysteriously, FEMA was made aware of the "development" that had sprung up over the years in the Intervale. This includes raised sheds and hoophouses.
That's when everything went surreal. Suddenly the Intervale was classified as a "floodway" and not a "floodplain" as is more accurate (making no structures of any kind allowed in the entire Intervale), and hoophouses (promoted by the VT Department of Agriculture just in 2006 to extend the growing season in Vermont to help supply our foodshed - they even made a video, and sponsored a workshop, which we attended and bought!) were under scrutiny as closed structures that have the ability to raise the base flood level enough to pose risks downstream. We argued that the posts for the HayGrove are akin to a field of saplings, and that the structure is in fact NOT a closed envelope, and that water can flow freely through them. Spencer did a calculation assuming the volume of the posts, and a 100-year flood level of 6', our structure would raise the base flood level a mere 17 nanometers. This distance can't be measured with normal microscopes. It is virtually insignificant. At any rate, the Intervale Center has hired lawyers and engineers to prove what we all know in a proposal to the Secretary of Agriculture, that hoophouses would not raise the base flood level, nor would it impede flow, and that the Intervale is in fact a floodplain and not a floodway. There was a lot of support in that proposal, with a lot of data from significant farmers and extension people. An interesting piece of information that came out of that process was that there are around 1,000 hoophouses in Vermont. Over 20% of them are in flood-prone areas. Does it really seem worth it to our local foodshed to eliminate the option for extended season production for 20% of our growers? The Burlington Free Press wrote a great article on this particular day when the proposal was submitted to the Secretary of Agriculture. A nice follow-up was in the Caledonian-Record as well not to mention a nice follow-up on the sad decision to close Intervale Compost Products. It's nice to know that people are taking notice of the issue and writing about it. It's even nicer to know that we have support from our community.

Our hope now resides in FEMA recognizing that the HayGrove hoophouse is not a "structure" that will have any impact on flood levels or flow of water. The Intervale should be recognized as being in a floodplain (non-flowing water during floods) instead of a floodway (flowing water with a current - sweeping things downstream). We experienced a major flood in 2006 (see left), and walking through that flood during its peak, we can attest to no current in the water. Also, note how our other hoophouse filled with water as though it wasn't even there. This structure is significantly more substantial in structure than the HayGrove we are proposing to build - the HayGrove has no baseboards, like this one does.
This decision is not expected to come down the pipeline until mid-March. Meanwhile, we cross our fingers, try to plan our farm season, order seeds, and hope. Our HayGrove sits in pieces at the farm awaiting approval and the Spring thaw. With any luck, we can erect our structure, and plant the first veggies by our planned date - April 15th. Those are the veggies you can expect to see at the first farmers market of the season.
I can't help but think about the basic thing in all this, and that is that all we want to do is grow food. We want to grow more and better food. We want to supply Burlington with this wonderful thing. Burlington has the distinction of being recognized as one of the "greenest" towns in the US by Organic Gardening magazine just recently in the February 2008 issue. One of the biggest reasons for that distinction was Intervale Compost Products, which has been bullied out of business now, and I feel like we're fighting to keep the other major "green" asset to the Queen City alive, and that's the Intervale Farms. Interestingly, isn't food security in the purview of FEMA? The big picture should be looked at here, not one tiny (1 and a third acre), low-impact farm's plans to help the community have even more access to good, clean and fair food.


Anonymous said...

BOOOOOOOO! A classic. How dare they, of course they dare-give them an inch and watch what happens! I feel for you and Spencer. A hard working couple trying to make the world more sane............hope it all works out in your favor.

mara said...

Thanks! We'll keep posting as we learn more - hopefully sooner than later!


Anonymous said...

How much of the country's prime farmland is in floodways? The longterm vision should be to get everything else out of the floodway and let the farmers do what they need to do in order to stay and profitably farm.

We need to form a coalition across the country to lobby FEMA about changing policy in the floodways and floodplains for agriculture. We are can't even build small scale composting structures in the floodway for on-farm use.