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Extending the Season for Local Produce

                                                                         News Feature                                                           6/7/2011

Extending the Season for Local Produce

West of US Highway 75 in Big Stone County, the growing season started early this year.

“My first planting was on March 19th. It was 37 degrees outside,” says vegetable grower Jan Eifealdt of Sunrise View Farms. It may have been 37 outside, but inside the producer’s season-extending high tunnel, it was perfect growing weather for cool season crops.

According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a high tunnel is “a polyethylene covered structure, at least 6 feet in height, which modifies the climate to create more favorable growing conditions for vegetables and other specialty crops grown in the natural soil within the covered space.” In cold climates like Minnesota’s, high tunnels are an increasingly popular way for growers to extend the season and to protect tender crops from the ravages of weather extremes. The tunnels can also offer a way for row crop or livestock farmers to diversify their income stream by growing high value crops in smaller spaces.

Eifealdt erected her 96’x24’ high tunnel last fall with help from family members and a cost-share program through NRCS that will pay a sizable portion of the tunnel’s $7,000 price tag. The program requires that tunnels be situated on cropland and that crops grown within the tunnel are planted directly into the natural soil—no tables, benches or hydroponic systems are allowed. Windbreaks are also needed to ensure the tunnel’s survival in windy and stormy conditions. If conditions are met, the program can cover more than half of the cost of the tunnel—up to $4,923 per agricultural operation. In exchange, the grower agrees to maintain the structure for four years. Tunnels can be used to grow annual vegetable crops and perennials like asparagus, strawberries and bramble fruits. There are cost- share programs both for conventional producers and for growers certified or transitioning to organic production. Krecia Leddy, NRCS District Conservationist for Big Stone County, urges growers interested in the high tunnel program to start thinking about the 2012 season now. “Contacting us early can help farmers get through the process and be set up in plenty of time for the next season.”

In early April, Eifealdt’s tunnel was already growing crops of sugar snap peas, two kinds of lettuce, spinach, radishes and onions with a succession of crops planned throughout the season. “Early tomatoes are the big thing—wouldn’t it be nice to have tomatoes by the 4th of July? And what about getting peppers to actually ripen in our short season?” It doesn’t seem like an impossible feat inside the tunnel, where it’s 80 degrees and the soil temperature is 65. Outside, it’s in the 50’s with a bone-chilling wind and drizzle.

High tunnel erection and production is not without difficulties—it’s a lengthy process to get the tunnel sited and put up, and “you don’t want to try attaching the plastic on a windy day,” says Eifealdt.

Snow load can be an issue with the tunnels—producers can remove the cover during the winter months to protect against collapse, but for late fall and early spring season extension, monitoring and removal of snow makes more sense for most growers. Heat build-up is also a factor—tunnels have roll-up sides to allow for heat escape, but keeping a close watch or utilizing electronic monitoring equipment (not covered in the cost-share program) are required to avoid “cooking” the crop in the ground on bright warm days.

Still, the income potential for a producer with the first greens in spring or the first ripe tomatoes at the market can be significant. The benefits to consumers are plentiful, too—with healthy local foods available for an extended season, farmers’ markets, grocery stores, restaurants and institutions that carry or serve local produce can offer a higher-quality farm-fresh product for much of the year.

Producers interested in the NRCS high tunnel cost share program can contact Krecia Leddy, Big Stone County NRCS District Conservationist, at 320-839-6149, ext. 3 or krecia.leddy@mn.usda.gov, or contact the NRCS District Conservationist in your county.

Rebecca Terk is Land Stewardship Project’s Community Based Food System organizer for Big Stone County, Minn. Contact her via at 320-305-9685 or e-mail rebeccat@landstewardshipproject.org. Krecia Leddy is the District Conservationist for NRCS in Ortonville, Minn. Contact her via e-mail at Krecia.leddy@mn.usda.gov

 

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