Dallas County Farmers Experience Hoop House Success
By Fay Garner, Public Affairs Specialist, NRCS, Auburn, AL
Greens being grown in hoop house.
Dallas County, Alabama, is in the middle of a building boom, not in public housing, but in hoop houses. Alabama Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is offering a pilot program through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) for Limited Resource, New and Beginning, and Socially Disadvantaged Farmers to install Seasonal High Tunnels, commonly known as hoop houses. About eight houses have been approved for construction in the county.
These structures can extend the crop growing season, improve plant and soil quality, and improve water quality by reducing nutrient and pesticide transport.
Two farmers, Tim Strong and Michael Pitts, are worthy test subjects for the program in the county. They are experiencing firsthand the successes that are touted by the program.
Hoop houses are structure kits made in numerous widths and lengths and are constructed of metal frames at least six feet in height and covered with a single layer of polyethylene. The maximum size for financial assistance is 2,178 square foot. The sides or ends of the house can be rolled up if ventilation is needed. The structure covers several crop rows, is wide enough to allow crop growth to full maturity under the tunnel, and is tall enough to allow spraying, cultivation, and harvesting with the tunnel intact. Electricity, ventilation, or heating systems are permitted, but not available for financial assistance.
Tim Strong, is a full-time teacher at Selma High School. He grows crops under plastic with micro-irrigation and does some conventional cropping on about ½ acre of land on his homestead. Because his family members farm, he was somewhat familiar with the process but he did not know about NRCS and the possibility of starting a new venture with financial assistance. One of his family members encouraged him to visit the local office.
Tim visited the NRCS office in Selma and asked lots of questions. The staff assessed his operation and his needs, and informed him of the programs in which he would qualify.
(l-r) Landowner Tim Strong and Wendy Smith, Dallas County NRCS Soil
Conservation Technician, talk about growing crops in his hoop house.
Wendy Smith, Dallas County NRCS Soil Conservation Technician, suggested that a hoop house might help with his small operation. He was told of the advantages of extending the growing season, keeping pest under control, and controlling forging wildlife. He qualified for financial assistance to purchase a house kit. He ordered his 2,211 square ft. (30.5 x 72.5) hoop house kit from an ag supply catalog and attended the required training for seasonal high tunnel management.
Tim constructed most of the hoop house himself in about a week, but contracted some help to install the plastic.
Crops eligible for growing in hoop houses include vegetables, fruits, flowers, and bulbs. Tim hired some students to help him plant turnips, two types of mustard, kale, collards, and cabbage. He hand-spread 13-13-13 fertilizer.
Tim used his existing micro-irrigation water system to install drip tape within the structure. He is impressed about how well the hoop house holds moisture. He said, “The crops do not require a lot of water. I would advise others who build a hoop house, not to water too much.”
Tim indicated that even though his production is not large at this time, he hopes to market some of his crops at road-side stands. He has been talking with family members who sell vegetables, and said he is getting a feel of what will work for him. “I planted mostly greens this time, because I know they will sell,” he said, “I may add some tomatoes to the rotation later.”
Tim said that another advantage of growing greens in a hoop house is that the produce does not need a lot of washing to get ready for market. The ground around the plants is not pelted by rain so the plants are not spattered with dirt. Basically, he explained, only the turnip roots need washing.
Tim has had no problems yet with insects on his greens because it has been cool. He said that he does not expect to need an extensive pest management plan.
Maintaining a good growing temperature is important. Tim said, “Since the temperature has dropped, I have let the doors down, and they have stayed down. You can tell a big difference in the temperature inside the hoop house. It is much warmer.”
Tim is sold on his hoop house venture. He said, “My operation is trial and error at this time, but from what I can tell, all of the promised advantages are ringing true. I planted greens inside and outside the hoop house and I can see a difference in the growth within the house.” He purchased another green house and plans to build benches to grow transplant seedlings above the ground. He agrees it is labor intensive, but said, “It cost less in the long run to grow your own seedlings. I plan to help supply seedlings to family members, also. It is better to buy seeds in volume, than to purchase plants.”
Tim has signed up for additional NRCS EQIP programs for woodland grazing of his goat herd. He has a wooded area further behind his residence where he would like to graze the goats. His long-term goal is to market goats for meat.
Michael Pitts shows peppers being grown in his hoop house.
Michael Pitts is another Dallas County landowner that is sold on his hoop house. He found out about NRCS and EQIP through a local farmer. He said, “He told me, ‘you are just moving out here and are interested in using your land, so you probably want to talk with NRCS and see what programs they have to help you.’ I did, and I met Wendy and all the folks in the local office. They were very helpful. We worked to get a farm plan completed and all the documentation needed to qualify for EQIP programs. Then they asked me ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘what do you have available?’ I qualified for a hoop house, assistance with my goats, and other programs. The people at NRCS have been very helpful to me.”
Michael qualified for the same practice payment as Tim for the house kit that he ordered from the same ag supply catalog. Since they ordered their kits at the same time, they were able to share shipping costs. Michael’s house is also 2,211 square foot.
Wendy said, “As part of the program agreement, participants agree to maintain the structure at least three years and maintain good records to document how long the structure extended the growing season, increases in production and by how much, and other pertinent observations and evaluations. Michael is proud of his progress. He e-mails me weekly with PowerPoint updates that he calls ‘The Friday Reports.’”
Michael said, “The updates give me a visual progress report that will help me with required documentation that I will have to file with NRCS.”
Michael’s operation proves that a hoop house can help extend the growing season. He has had crops growing since the spring and they were still producing long after the frost killed most conventional crops. During this first year, he is trying all kinds of vegetables to see which ones will grow best for him.
In the spring he planted beans and peas, different kinds of sweet and hot peppers, broccoli, lettuce, tomatoes, squash, zucchini, sweet potatoes, and other items. He admitted that some of the plants have slowed down, but that most are still producing in sufficient quantities.
He said, “I think the butter beans will make until I take them out. I am going to let them grow until they stop producing just to see how long they will last.” He planted peas in late September, cucumbers October 1st, and, even though it is slowing down, he is still harvesting the same okra he planted in the spring.
Like Tim, Michael is operating on trial and error. He said, “I was told that okra wouldn’t grow in the winter. I guess they are right, because I planted some new seeds the first of September and they are only a few inches high.” He added, “Another lesson I learned is you can’t plant different peppers too close together. I have banana peppers that are supposed to be sweet, and they are very hot because I planted them next to the chili peppers. They cross-pollinated.”
Michael is originally from Detroit and is new to farming. He is learning some things the hard way. He did not have a preventative pest control plan. One day, he discovered that his tomato plants were dying. A local producer looked at his plants and Michael said, “Within 30 seconds, he told me I had tomato horn worms. The tomato plants are the original ones I planted in April. After I got rid of the worms using organic pesticides, all except two of the tomato plants came back to life and are still producing.” He also said, because of pests, “I had to get rid of 4-5 rows of peas. I sprayed for pests once a month after that, but not so much since it has turned cooler.”
With his first year experience behind him, Michael is planning his marketing strategy for next year. He said, “At one produce stand in town, this year I sold tomatoes, peas, squash, and zucchini. The owner and I talked, and I am going to do some target vegetables for him next year. Most of my yields this year, I either canned or put in the freezer for my own use.”
When asked if he would change anything about his first year, Michael said, “I would probably do more research to see what vegetables are best for my market. I would still probably use about half for personal use and sell rest.” He also said, “I have learned a lot about documentation. I know when I dug the sweet potatoes; I know when I picked a mess of beans. I take photographs and document my whole planting history.”
Michael indicated, like Tim, that it was not hard to install his hoop house. He had one other person to help with the structure, and when the film was stretched across the house, he had two other guys helping. He said, “For the most part, two people can put the hoop house up. The most important tools are ladders, dependable labor, and good instructions. This hoop house came with excellent instructions.”
Wendy said that hoop house location is also important. A north/south direction is recommended. Michael said, “Mine is facing north/south, so the sun comes over it east to west, and I have a tree line that is a wind buffer.”
Wendy said that the film covering the houses is designed to last 4-5 years. She said, “The plastic on the hoop houses is easy to snag and producers need to keep the tears patched so the wind does not make holes larger.”
Michael also qualified for additional NRCS EQIP financial assistance for woodland grazing of his goats. This included fencing, land clearing, pipeline, and water. He has about six acres behind his house to graze the goats and, like Tim, his long-term goal is to market goats for meat.
Tim and Michael were proud to be their county’s trail blazers for hoop houses. Wendy said that, “They hit the ground running and got their hoop houses up in good time. They are just the right people for the New and Beginning Farmer program, not only new farmers, but young people that are excited about their land and what they can do with it. Tim told me that what we did for him was inspiring to him. But, what he and Michael are doing is inspiring to me. Young farmers can make a difference in our lives, and I am glad that NRCS made a difference in their lives.”
NRCS State Conservationist Dr. William Puckett said, “This pilot program has generated a lot of interest across the state. We are glad that these two farmers are helping spread the word about the benefits of hoop houses and other NRCS programs.”
A New and Beginning Farmer or Rancher is an individual or entity who has not operated a farm or ranch, or who has operated a farm or ranch for not more than 10 consecutive years. Individuals are not eligible for EQIP until they have completed the Farm Bill eligibility requirements.
To see if you qualify for this or other NRCS programs, contact your local NRCS office listed in the telephone book under U.S. Department of Agriculture or online at http://offices.sc.egov.usda.gov. USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.
Hoop house installed on Michael Pitt's land.