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High on the Little Blue

High on the Little Blue

Outside view if the high tunnelOn the Little Blue River Farm in Washington County, Kansas, Robin Kelley and her husband, Randy have one high tunnel in which they grow fresh produce year round. They market this produce to local farmers markets and grocery stores.

Robin first heard about high tunnels at an organic producers’ meeting in 2010. After researching the subject on the internet, she contacted her local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office in Washington, Kansas.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s NRCS provides financial assistance for seasonal high tunnels as part of a three-year trial to determine their effectiveness in conserving water, reducing pesticide use, maintaining vital soil nutrients, and increasing crop yields.

According to Dee Minge, Supervisory District Conservationist, NRCS, Washington, the Kelley’s were the first producers in the county to install a seasonal high tunnel (sometimes referred to as a hoop house). They are made of plastic or metal pipe and covered with plastic and require no energy and rely on sunlight to modify the climate inside to create favorable conditions for growing vegetables and other specialty crops.

“The Kelley’s were able to qualify for financial assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) Organic Initiative under the Beginning Farmer Program,” says Minge. This initiative is an NRCS effort to help connect farmers and consumers, strengthen local and regional food production, increase the use of sustainable agricultural practices, and promote consumption of fresh, local food.”

Randy and Robin Kelly pose near the row of lettuce they planted last fallLittle Blue River Farm once belonged to Robin’s parents. After they passed away, she and Randy bought the farm with the idea of settling down in a quiet place. For now, the high tunnel is their main focus. “We hadn’t always planned on being farmers, but I guess we are now!” jokes Robin. “We couldn’t have done this without NRCS’ help.”

Under this contract explains Minge, “A conservation plan was developed to provide assistance on the high tunnel and micro-irrigation.”

“Organic farming is right down my alley,” says Robin. “I don’t like using pesticides on my gardens, and I can’t see how these chemicals can be any good for you.” The Kelley’s installed their high tunnel in August 2010. It is approximately 30 feet wide by 96 feet in length. Last fall they grew lettuce and mustard greens.

“Lettuce was our cash crop this winter,” says Randy. “We harvested all winter and had two grocery stores buying from us. Fresh greens in the winter, unbelievable.”

The main crop, however, are the tomatoes. “We’ve made several adjustments within the high tunnel,” Randy says. He points to the trellis system he designed for the tomato plants to climb when they are growing taller this summer. “It’s been a learning process,” he says.

Randy Kelly shows the trellis system he designed for tomatoes to climb.Under the EQIP organic initiative, the Kelley’s installed a micro-irrigation system for water efficiency with financial assistance from NRCS. “This way the plants get the water needed and I’m conserving water,” Randy says.

The Kelley’s are growing and selling locally at farmers markets. “Our goal in this venture is to subsidize our income doing something we enjoy,” Robin said. She takes the produce to area markets, but the main market she is involved in is the one she organized in Hanover.

“Buy fresh and buy local, it’s good for the community,” she said.

The Kelley’s are also excited about locating a buyer in Wichita who markets fresh produce in the area. “The buyer wants all the tomatoes we can grow,” says Randy.

“The great thing about these high tunnels is that they not only extend the season, but you can plant earlier and have beautiful big produce because of a controlled environment,” said Robin. And no doubt, the Kelley’s tomatoes will be perfect. “I can’t wait for these tomatoes, hurry up,” Robin says.

Kansas NRCS is participating in a three-year study to see if high tunnels are effective in reducing pesticide use, retaining vital nutrients in the soil, extending the growing season, and increasing yields. Last year Kansas NRCS worked with 47 producers across the state that used $173,600 in financial assistance under EQIP Organic Initiative to extend the crop growing season.

Additional information specific to EQIP Organic Initiative is available from your local U.S. Department of Agriculture Service Center (USDA), from NRCS staff, or at www.ks.nrcs.usda.gov/programs.

USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.

The Little Blue River Farm operation was featured on Kansas First News, Topeka, Kansas. Video of the story is available courtesy of Kansas First News.