Head north on Hewitt Road from Washtenaw Avenue, past Eastern Michigan’s Rynearson Stadium to the edge of the St. Joseph Mercy Hospital campus. Off to the right is a plot of land that the health provider is now returning to a previous use – farming.
The centerpiece of the current effort is a 30 x 96-foot hoop house, which began construction on Monday. It will be joined by a second hoop house later in the summer, and plans call for a dozen of the structures to be built in the coming years.
The vegetables grown on the plot will be used in the hospital cafeteria and patient meals, and sold at a farmers market, with excess donated to Food Gatherers.
On Monday and again on Wednesday this week, Hank Beekley and his team of draft horses helped with the effort to transform about an acre of St. Joseph’s 356-acre campus in Superior Township to productive farming.
Tuesday was an off day for the horses – wet conditions were the key factor. But Beekley himself was there on Tuesday, along with other volunteers and St. Joseph’s staff to help build the first hoop house, which was already off to a good start based on Monday’s work.
Hoop House Construction
Overseeing the hoop house construction on Tuesday was Dave Raymond, who is St. Joseph’s service delivery leader for planning.
He explained that the pieces of untreated lumber affixed to the bottom of the metal pipe ribs are skirt boards – that’s where the plastic covering will be attached. It will be a double-Visqueen covering, he explained, with the design allowing for the plastic to be rolled up for venting.
Without the ability to vent, Raymond said, the temperatures inside the hoop house during summer weather would easily reach 140 degrees. That kind of solar gain, however, is what will allow the hoop houses to produce vegetables year round, even through the winter. In addition to protection from the exterior walls of the hoop house, additional row covers might be required for the most extreme cold, he said.
Raymond confirmed that the structure is engineered to withstand a snow load. Part of that strength will come from the purlins that were being installed on Tuesday morning. Purlins are the horizontal members that join the ribs of the structure and provide lateral stability.
What’s the Investment?
Each hoop house, said Raymond, reflects about a $10,000 investment, or $120,000 for the 12 hoop houses that are eventually planned. On Tuesday morning, Raymond told The Chronicle that he expects the total investment to break even in around three years.
The projected return factors in (i) the cost savings of not mowing the area, (ii) the cost savings from using the vegetables grown in the hoop houses in the hospital cafeteria and for patient meals, and (iii) proceeds from the sale of the vegetables at a farmers market to be run two days a week at the hospital.
But Rob Casalou, CEO and president of St. Joseph Mercy, said Tuesday that he has not given the project a time period to show a financial return. The commitment is based on the fact that it’s a good idea, he said – that the hospital is not just a place where people go and get fixed, but rather it provides support for overall wellness. Besides Raymond, Casalou gave credit to two others for moving the hoop house project forward: Lisa McDowell, who is head of nutrition for St. Joseph Mercy, and Dr. Steve Thiry, a St. Joseph Mercy physician.
The Wellness Angle: Fruit, Bees, Syrup
Lisa McDowell, head of nutrition at St. Joseph Mercy, spent part of Tuesday morning wielding a shovel. But she also took time to tell The Chronicle that besides the 12 hoop houses and the exterior garden space, there are also plans to add fruit trees: pear, apple, peach and plum. They’re also thinking of adding some bee colonies, and tapping the numerous maple trees on the property to make maple syrup.
McDowell ballparked the number of meals served at St. Joseph Mercy at more than 3,000 a day. And according to Dave Raymond, they’d need 12 hoop houses just to provide all the lettuce. But it’s planned as more than just a symbolic effort – his estimated three-year payback on the investment is consistent with that idea.
McDowell also put the hoop house project in the context of the Health Care Without Harm (HCWH) initiative, which St. Joseph Mercy has signed. From HCWH’s website:
HCWH is committed to driving the green revolution in healthcare, making the connection between good health and a clean environment, and positioning healthcare’s core principle of “first, do no harm” as a central pillar of sustainable society.