Updated: Jan 21, 2019
December 21, 2018
When I first started at Feeding Laramie Valley (FLV) in February 2018, we had just received a research grant from the Wyoming Department of Agriculture to study different types of hoop houses. I was assigned to keep track of data for the grant and I was super excited, but I had no idea what I was getting into. The main problem? I had no idea what a hoop house actually was.
A hoop house, or high tunnel, is several large hoops made of plastic, metal, or wood, covered with a sheet of stretched plastic. A hoop house is said to help extend the length of your growing season by trapping heat and moisture which increases yield and, depending on where you live, could give you an added month or two of growing. But, what if you’re growing in Laramie, Wyoming?
Laramie is known for its harsh weather. It’s particularly known for having dry weather, high-winds, frequent crop-damaging weather, and only has about 56 days without frost on average. Clearly, this is the place to experiment with season extenders like hoop houses.
Early in 2018 Feeding Laramie Valley received a Specialty Crops Research Grant from the Wyoming Department of Agriculture to determine what type of hoop house covering would contribute to the most favorable growing conditions. We wanted to know exactly how much longer a growing season we could have with different types of hoop houses.
Reece, our Food Production Coordinator, an AmeriCorps NCCC team, and the FLV Summer Shares team quickly got to work and built 3 hoop houses at our farm in the Albany County Fairgrounds. The first hoop house had a fiber reinforced cover, otherwise known as skin, that resembled a tarp and had been built the year before. The second had a bubble encapsulated skin, and the third was a standard clear plastic skin. Two sensors were placed in each hoop house, one to measure the temperature and relative humidity of the air, and one to measure the temperature of the soil. A seventh sensor was placed on the fence next to the hoop houses to act as a control for the outside temperature and relative humidity. With all those sensors in place, what could go wrong?
A lot. Even constructing these bad boys was a challenge! Our shipment of the bubble-encapsulated cover took weeks to get to us, we lost quite a bit of our crops to gnats, and worse, our sensors kept failing! As someone who had jumped into this project mid construction, I struggled to find a way to make this research project work.
On my end, I was responsible for analyzing all the information from the sensors. Simple right? No. Turns out, when you have 7 sensors all recording every 30 minutes for several months you acquire a LOT of data. Even when the sensors stopped recording and needed replacing, there was so much data. I’m talking over 140,000 lines of data. This was more data than I had ever dealt with, so I went and found an expert. I went to a professor at the University of Wyoming, a Chemical Geologist who had fostered my interest in the data analysis world a few years ago. What had initially been a plea for advice on how to move forward became a wonderful data-infused partnership. After struggling for weeks to get all the data together, we finally got to the juicy stuff.
Turns out, hoop houses work pretty great! We were able to see that regardless of the type of cover used, having a hoop house significantly increases the temperature and moisture of the air and soil. Even cooler, we figured out a way to see past the day-to-night-to-day changes, otherwise called diurnal changes, as well as the seasonal changes, to really get into the nitty gritty differences of each hoop house. It turned out that the Bubble covering worked the best and produced the most amount of produce (48.28% of total yield). It retained more heat than both the Tarp or the Clear hoop houses. In fact, the Bubble retained heat so well it was able to protect our crops from freezing for an extra 15 days!
This was all super exciting, but how reliable was our data? After all, we only had information for one growing season, and we had had many growing pains working out the kinks in our research from unreliable data, bugs, crops that just wouldn’t grow and crops that would flower before we could say “broccoli”! We also had to take into account all the potential errors and ask ourselves a lot of questions like: was it a fluke that our okra never grew? Or, how much did the bugs affect growth in the Bubble house? Could there have been a leak in the Tarp house? Or, how reliable were the temperature records from the sensors.
But after everything we went through, the research was complete. In no time at all, the winter was upon us, and we were harvesting the last of our produce and putting the hoop houses to bed. I’ve learned a lot about growing during my VISTA service, and even more about the importance of hoop houses and other season extenders. I’ve learned that hoop houses are crucial to growing in Laramie, Wyoming. Yes, we can grow without it, but it helps grow those pesky warm weather crops in our short growing season. In the future, Feeding Laramie Valley hopes to not only continue on this research but to expand on it. To continue find out exactly which skin is the most ideal, which crops grow best in them, what soil, what watering system, which materials for construction are the most ideal for growing and more! Who knows, maybe someday we’ll be able to grow year around in Laramie!
If you want to delve into the weeds of this research, check out our research report here.
To see our hoop houses in person, visit our farm at the Albany County Fairgrounds!