Backyard farming: Conservation district holds urban ag workshop

Thyra Karlstrom and her daughter, Lotus, explore the Graveraet Elementary School hoop house Saturday during the Urban Agriculture with Season Extenders workshop held by the Marquette County Conservation District. Attendees had a chance to learn about a variety of season-extending structures, from small low tunnels to larger hoop houses and greenhouses during the workshop. (Journal photo by Cecilia Brown)

MARQUETTE — Growing food in your own backyard can have a number benefits for personal and environmental health, as eating fresh, local food can reduce your carbon footprint while providing more nutrients than food that has traveled hundreds of miles.

But in the Marquette area, where the growing season can be a mere 100 days or shorter, it can be challenging to reap these benefits for more than a few months.

However, a free workshop titled Urban Agriculture with Season Extenders gave attendees a chance to learn how to extend the growing season, and even get started on the construction of a season-extending low-tunnel hoop structure for their own home gardens.

The workshop was held by the Marquette County Conservation District at the Graveraet Elementary School hoop house Saturday in Marquette.

“With such a short growing season, it’s really important for people to know techniques to extend it to be able to grow their fruits and vegetables longer into the year, and even over the winter, some of those crops,” said Jaime Beranek, urban agriculture assistant coordinator for the Marquette County Conservation District. “People want to eat more local food and just have a sense of place, a higher quality of life.”

People who attended the workshop look on as Abbey Palmer of Michigan State University Extension shows a variety of materials that can be used to construct season-extending structures. Saturday’s workshop was the second of four urban agriculture workshops held by the conservation district. (Journal photo by Cecilia Brown)

The workshop, which is the second in a series of four held by the conservation district, was taught by Abbey Palmer of Michigan State University Extension.

Before demonstrating how to construct a low-tunnel structure, Palmer told attendees about the value of various forms of season extenders and the materials that can be used.

“The No. 1 thing that season extension does is creates a period of time for plants to exist for a period of time that’s outside what the weather provides,” Palmer said. “But it’s also good for protection from deer or insects, especially the low tunnel.”

Palmer explained the various methods of season extension, from large hoop houses and greenhouses using plastic or glass for their covers, to the smaller-scale low tunnels, which are covered with a thin fabric to allow air and light to reach plants while protecting them from cold, weeds and insects.

“These simple structures that we’re going to talk about today can make a really big difference when it comes to growing some of the crops like peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, that you want to get a longer season for so they can mature,” Palmer said. “And also utilizing the shoulder season in the spring and the fall, so you can do more with the cold-loving crops like spinach or cilantro.”

After learning about the materials that can be used for season extension structures, the group began bending metal hoops and cutting fabric for 4-by-4-foot low tunnels, which attendees took home so they could construct one in their own backyard.

It’s important to hold these workshops, Beranek and Palmer said, as the new land development code in the city of Marquette has expanded urban agriculture options for homeowners, and many have expressed interest in learning how to do it themselves.

“Now we have a lot more options — keeping chickens, keeping rabbits, keeping bees and having season extension structures are on everybody’s radar,” Palmer said.

There are many benefits to urban agriculture, both for the planet and its people, Beranek said, as “you’re relying less on food that’s imported from outside of your immediate geographic area,” and eating locally-grown food, which can retain more nutrients and reduce the carbon footprint associated with transporting and storing food from more distant locales.

Overall, Beranek hopes the workshop will empower individuals to take part in urban agriculture practices.

“You don’t need something extremely complicated to be able to start a project in your own backyard,” she said. “It can be as simple as building a raised-bed garden and putting a few tomato plants in; that is going to make a difference.”

The workshop series is supported by a $30,000 grant awarded by the National Association of Conservation Districts.

The next workshop, Raising Small Livestock and Composting, will be held from 10 a.m. to noon Aug. 10 in downtown Ishpeming.

The final workshop, Native and Invasive Plants and Pollinators, will be held 10 a.m. to noon Sept. 14 near the multi-use path off Fourth Street in Marquette.

Advance registration is required. Registration is free and available at Marquettecd.com. The MCCD asks that those interested in attending the workshops register at least one week in advance. Snacks and materials will be provided.

For more information, call Landen Titel, produce safety technician at the Marquette County Conservation District, at 906-226-8871 ext. 105.

Cecilia Brown can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is cbrown@miningjournal.net.