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How One Eastern Ky Farmer is Making a Seasonal High Tunnel Work for Her

By Jamie Johnson Ponder
Conservation Planning Technician
London Service Center

Beth Tillery preparing flower vase.When Beth and Doug Tillery married, purchased and moved to Doug’s Jackson County family dairy, tobacco and swine operation in 1978, it came as a bit of a shock when they received their first milk check and it wouldn’t even cover the cost of the feed bill. They realized early on if they were going to survive, something had to change. As a result, Beth began seeking out alternative agricultural opportunities and soon became involved in the Community Farm Alliance, better known as CFA, where she became a fellow and eventually chaired the organization, which worked faithfully to ensure Kentucky’s portion of tobacco settlement funds were allocated to Kentucky farmers.

Tillery began thinking “diversification” long before the decline of monoculture crops such as tobacco.  She added pumpkin, gourds, Indian corn, and other fall ornamentals into their rotation which she sold at fall festivals throughout the region. As demand for her commodities grew, so did the operation, expanding to include beef and poultry. In the late 1990’s she began seeking out alternative markets and, through a friend, found out about the Lexington Farmer’s Market which is her primary market to this day. Currently, the Tillerys produce and sell farm fresh eggs, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, cut flowers, pumpkins, gourds and Indian corn.

I really believe Seasonal High Tunnels are going to make a difference for the farmers of Kentucky.  The opportunities are endless.  - Beth Tillery

The transition away from tobacco left the Tillerys with an abandoned hydroponic hoop house formerly used to grow tobacco transplants. Tillery quickly put her skills to work and began starting seeds for the rest of their operation, primarily for the cut flower market. When they branched into berry production one of the biggest obstacles they faced was bird infestation, resulting in the installation of netting over their blueberry patch.

Respberries from Tillery High TunnelTillery attended a NRCS Public Outreach meeting in Laurel County to learn more about the Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative. Quickly realizing the advantage a high tunnel would provide to berry production, Tillery made the decision to apply for one through the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), a voluntary program that provides financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers to help plan and implement conservation practices that address natural resource concerns and provide opportunities to improve soil, water, plant, animal, air and related resources on agricultural land and non-industrial private forestland. Tillery was approved for the program and completed her Seasonal High Tunnel in early Spring, 2013.

Tillery says farming is in her blood and can’t picture herself doing anything else, emphatically stating, “Farming is so hard, but we have this hope inside.” It’s perfectly evident one of those hopes is for this initiative when she adds, “I really believe Seasonal High Tunnels are going to make a difference for the farmers of Kentucky, especially in light of the adverse weather patterns we’re experiencing. The opportunities are endless.”