Back in September 2009, Cleveland urban farmer Michael Walton decided to have an old-fashioned barn raising of sorts. He had purchased a high-tunnel hoop-bending tool from a company in Texas and had lined up about 30 volunteers to build the tunnel in a single day at his Clear Lake Farm on Ansel Road on Cleveland’s East Side.
The tunnel, made of plastic sheeting stretched over curved metal trusses, would extend the growing season for Walton’s small farm, allowing him to raise cold-loving vegetables in the dead of a Cleveland winter and plant warm-loving crops in March.
Construction didn’t go according to plan, though.
“It wasn’t a total disaster,” says Carlton Jackson, one of the day’s volunteers, “but the instructions weren’t good, the material list wasn’t very good and the actual design wasn’t very good.”
What was supposed to take one weekend took two to three weeks, and that was just to get the house “somewhat functional,” Jackson says.
Todd Alexander, one of the co-owners of Central Roots, another urban farming operation in Cleveland, was also there. By the end of the first day of construction, Walton, Jackson and Alexander were talking about how to make the process better.
“We were like, ‘Is this really the best hoop house instruction guide out there?’ ” Alexander recalls.
That was the question that ultimately launched Tunnel Vision Hoops.
“We thought, We can’t be the only ones who went through this experience,” Jackson says. “We figured we had a marketable skill with what we learned, and we added to that by making better systems.”
Now just a year old, Tunnel Vision Hoops has sold and constructed 11 hoop houses of their own design to groups such as Case Western Reserve University’s Squire Valley Farm, Cleveland Botanical Garden, the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities and Community Greenhouse Partners.
“When we first came up with the idea, we envisioned building a few a summer, every weekend or so, maybe make enough money to buy some pizzas and beer and then go back to our day jobs,” Alexander says. “After we built that first tunnel, it’s been rolling.”
success can be linked in part to Northeast Ohio’s place as a hotbed for urban agriculture.
In 2008, the green-living website SustainLane.com ranked Cleveland No. 2 in the country for local food and agriculture, just behind Minneapolis. The ranking was boosted by the 12 farmers markets and 225 community gardens that existed in the city that year. Today, there are at least 75 farmers markets throughout Northeast Ohio.
A study sponsored by several Cleveland organizations in 2010 revealed that 50 new gardens appeared in Cleveland in 2009 and that about $3 million worth of fresh fruits and vegetables were grown on 56 acres.
That study, titled “The 25% Shift: The Benefits of Food Localization for Northeast Ohio and How to Realize Them,” actually mentions Tunnel Vision Hoops as one of companies that could help meet the 25 percent goal of locally produced food. (Currently, only about 1 percent of the food we eat is produced here.) That move, the study says, would create 27,664 new jobs and increase regional output by $4.2 billion.
A key to realizing that shift and its purported benefits, Jackson says, is lengthening the growing season in Northeast Ohio.
“We only have a 135-day growing season,” he says. “In order for us to really capitalize and create jobs and create a local economy around food, we have to offer more than 135 days of work.”
A traditional greenhouse is one way, Jackson says. A hoop house is another, and at much less cost, both to construct and to operate, in part because they are heated using primarily solar energy. Tunnel Vision’s hoop houses start at about $1,700 for installation of a 12-by-12-foot house and increase in price with the size.
Hoop houses are named such because they look like, well, hoops. Metal trusses are curved into semicircles and anchored to a bar that in turn is anchored into the ground. Plastic sheeting is attached to the tresses, and end walls or retractable domes are connected to either end of the house.
The buildings range anywhere from 12 feet wide to 20 feet and are typically built in a few days or less. Tunnel Vision has built hoop houses as long as 72 feet.
The one at Central Roots Farm in Ohio City, which Alexander farms with two other partners, is 20 feet wide and 50 feet long. In late May, he already had planted 41 tomato plants in his hoop house, giving him about a four-week head start on other growers in Northeast Ohio. He was getting ready to plant pole beans, eggplant and either melons or ginger.
In late fall, he’ll plant cold-weather crops such as spinach, radishes and kale and be able to take cuttings in November and December.
built its first hoop house for Case Western Reserve University Farm after its horticulturist, Chris Bond, saw an early scale model of the company’s new design. It had a gutter system — an improvement made on the original Walton hoop house — as well as a retractable dome at both ends.
“We described the dome, and he said it was really cool,” Alexander says. “A few days later, we got a call, and they wanted to purchase a tunnel with a dome on it.”
The patent-pending dome, which is raised and lowered by a series of cables and pulleys, allows a farmer to dramatically increase the amount of airflow coming into the hoop house. That’s important on hot summer days, when even warm-loving plants will burn in an enclosure once the temperature reaches 130 degrees.
The retractable dome also adds about 150 square feet to the hoop house, so a farmer can install a vegetable cleaning station or have a compost pile, the latter of which also increases the warmth in the enclosure and helps extend the growing season.
The opening is also large enough to drive a tractor through or any other piece of equipment a farmer may need. Bond had Tunnel Vision build him a hoop house with domes on both ends and doors on both sides.
“I’ve seen hoop houses for 20 years or so, but I’ve never seen any design specifically for growing in this climate,” Bond says. “I think they’ve got a good design and a good price point. They’re off to a good start.”
Dar Caldwell, one of the co-founders of the recently opened Shaker LaunchHouse incubator, says Tunnel Vision Hoops is a company at the forefront of revitalizing Cleveland’s urban core.
“Most see vacant cities and vacant buildings and think horrible things,” Caldwell says. “These guys see nothing but opportunity there. They’re looking for ways to make use of the vacant space, … and the local food movement offers a lot of opportunity for that.”
Tunnel Vision now has office and warehouse space at Shaker LaunchHouse’s 23,000-square-foot headquarters in Shaker Heights, which opened June 1.
The company is currently sticking with the three founders as its only employees, though they will add a few interns over the summer.
Tunnel Vision Hoops plans to launch a new website later this year that will sell other seasonal-extension products such as weed barrier, low tunnels and hoop house kits. If it takes off like urban farming has across the country, they know their revenue and employee numbers will be growing like plants in a hoop house.