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Hoop-lah - Fighting for all of us to be able to grow food

Flourishing plants, rich soil, and a thriving vegetable garden are probably not the things which come immediately to mind when one considers the suburbs of Chicago. But Nicole Virgil of Elmhurst, Illinois looked at her lot, just a fifth of an acre large, and envisioned just that.

It started with a single, 4x4 raised bed in 2013. This allowed Nicole’s family to grow a few bean plants, lettuce, onions, basil, and kale in rich, healthy soil. The family added two more beds in 2014, and by 2015 they began considering the idea of extending their growing season through the midwestern winters.

At that point, the Virgil’s were constricted to the summer months, but if they could find some way to grow during the fall, winter, and spring as well, they could harvest crops through the winter, reduce their grocery bill, and start the garden in February and March instead of May. Thus, Nicole turned to hoop houses as her solution.

Hoop houses are essentially greenhouses—they’re constructed of flexible plastic stretched over a series of metal, plastic, or wooden arches. Solar heat gets trapped within the hoop houses, allowing plants the climate necessary to grow in colder, snowier months.

“In a world where food is flown in from great distances, and it is not uncommon to experience food recalls, a diversified food system seems a no-brainer to me,” Virgil says. “Everyone has to eat. The closer people are to their food, the more ownership and interest they take. Not to mention the nutritional value and diversity of crops that are aided by growing food either locally or in your own backyard.”

At 360 sq. ft., the Virgil’s first hoop house stood for 150 days between 2015 and 2016. With a longer growing season and more space, the family grew an abundance of vegetables: sweet potatoes, corn, tomatoes, collards, basil, oregano, carrots, and much more.

Following the city’s building codes, the structure took up only 27% of their lot, below the 30% maximum coverage. However, a neighbor’s complaint about the noise prompted a visit from a city official, who essentially told the Virgil’s that the hoop house could only stand so long as it was temporary. The Virgil’s assured the official that this was true, and took down the hoop house in April of 2016 for the spring growing season.

However, in the winter of 2016, the Virgil’s were contacted about their newly constructed hoop house by the city again. The message had changed: Stop building the hoop house. This ruling was reached on the basis that hoop houses violated a permanent building code as well as a mobile home ordinance, neither of which specify hoop houses directly. In compliance with the order, the Virgil’s took down the structure, losing all of their crops for the season.

“We were stunned for several reasons,” Virgil says. “First, that the hoop house is clearly seasonal. Second, that it’s a benefit to the community—educational opportunities abound, and the increased soil quality under the hoop remediates the clay soil and assists with storm water. Furthermore, it’s no more a concern than plenty of other backyard implements including trampolines, play sets, ice hockey rinks, and so on, all of which are unregulated, seasonal, and the sole concern of the homeowner.”

What came to follow was a series of citations and hearings during which the Virgil family fought for their hoop house with every resource available to them. As attention from the press picked up, so did the number of Virgil’s supporters. A Facebook page was established—Elmhurst Hoop House Supporters—and then a website, titled “Elmhurst Hooplah.”

“I met a bunch of people,” Virgil says. “We’ve built a little grass roots army.”

One such member of Virgil’s “grass roots army” was Deb Crockett, executive director of Angelic Organics Learning Center. At the conclusion of a public comment on the hoop houses in December of 2018, Crockett said, “The Virgil’s and others from Elmhurst with a similar inclination should be commended and supported in their initiative to teach neighbors and children self-reliance, life skills, stewardship for the land, and for each other.”

Despite everything, on January 28, 2019, the Elmhurst Development, Planning and Zoning Committee ruled against hoop houses for residential gardening.

“America was founded on the tenants that the government exists to protect the rights of its citizens; namely life, liberty, and property,” Nicole says. “In this case, my local government has not only abdicated its defense of my rights, but they have blocked both my right to liberty and property.”

When asked what’s next for her family and their hoop houses, Virgil simply says that she cannot currently comment on that matter. However, it is clear that finding sustainable means of vegetable growing will remain top priority for her.

“The closer the food is grown to where it is going to be eaten, the better for everyone,” Nicole says. “These facts are not in dispute.”


Update: Sunday, March 10, 2019  Nicole has been asked to testify Wednesday, March 13 in Springfield. Help us show support by filling out a witness slip by Tuesday, March 12.


Make a difference in your community, and support everyone's ability to grow food in their own yard! If you live in Illinois and are over 18, take just 2 minutes to sign this witness slip in support of using season extension devices like hoop houses by homeowners. Use the link and directions below, and help support locally grown food!


Here's how to fill out a witness slip:

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