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Like White House, grow crops year-round with hoop houses, USDA help

By USA Today

Farming year-round, even in freezing temperatures as the White House does, is possible with a plastic-covered hoop house, which resembles a greenhouse. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is offering grants to help cover the cost. U.S. Department of Agriculture

Snow and freezing temperatures outside? Not to worry. You can grow crops such as  spinach, lettuce and carrots year-round,  as does the White House, with plastic-covered hoop houses . You may even qualify for a grant to do so from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The USDA advised the White House on how to harvest food during cold winter months in the South Lawn vegetable garden that first lady Michelle Obama started in March, as noted in an earlier post, and produced a video that you can watch by clicking here. Its secret weapon: high tunnels or hoop houses, which are essentially unheated, temporary greenhouses that have been around for years and can be built cheaply.

The USDA  launched a pilot program this month to help farmers pay for them as part of its new $65 million Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, which aims to increase the availability of locally grown produce. I spoke to a couple of USDA officials about this three-year program available in 38 states.

"They are growing in popularity," says USDA's Norm Widman, a national agronomist, about hoop houses. By offering some protection from wind, cold, pests and rain, he says they extend the growing season, may reduce pesticide use and better utilize nutrients.

Anyone can apply for USDA's hoop house grants, but they are primarily geared toward people who earn all or part of their living by farming, says Abby Letzter, conservation program specialist at USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which is running the program.

She says the grants will cover 50% to 75% of the cost of hoop houses, which can run a few hundred dollars for small backyard ones to a few thousand for large ones.  She encourages people who are interested to contact their local NRCS office.

Made of ribs of plastic or metal pipe covered with a layer of plastic sheeting, hoop houses are easy to build, maintain and move. You can learn more about them from this website  and get a step-by-step guide to building one from The Samuel Roberts Nobel Foundation.

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