Extending the Season for Local Produce
News Feature 7/29/2011
Seasonal High Tunnel Systems
By Amanda Kiecker, WAE, Marshall NRCS
Imagine going out and planting early season crops towards the end of March and having ripe tomatoes ready to eat by July 4th. You may not believe it since Minnesota has such an unpredictable spring, but with a seasonal high tunnel, you can. What seasonal high tunnels do is keep the air inside warmer than what it is outside. This change in temperature and the shelter from the initial frosts allow farmers to plant their crops earlier.
A seasonal high tunnel is a polyethylene structure that is at least six feet high and helps moderate the climate which allows for longer and more favorable growing seasons. Although the initial cost of building a high tunnel can be somewhat costly, there are government programs within the Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) that can help you cover the cost. To be eligible for funding, you must meet certain requirements. The person(s) wanting to apply must have a strong willing to stick with the program, have documentation showing that the current operation has agriculture production of over $1,000.00, and must control the land during the contract just to name a few. To get started, the farmer must 1) sign up at the local NRCS office for an EQIP application for a High Tunnel, 2) wait for contract approval, and 3) buy a seasonal high tunnel kit from a commercial manufacturer and the kit must be installed by the correct specifications. The maximum EQIP assistance allowed is on 2,178 square feet of land and the maximum payment rate is at $1.89 per square foot.
Robert Wing from Lynd Minnesota decided to buy and assemble a seasonal high tunnel system to “extend the growing season”. Robert “likes challenges and gardening” and thought that having a seasonal high tunnel would be a rewarding challenge and allow for “earlier production”. Robert is retired and thought by having a high tunnel he could use the extra produce as a source of extra income, selling the products at the farmers market in Marshall, Minnesota.
When asked about pros and cons of having a high tunnel, Robert said a con was “worrying about the wind. It’s not very often we get 80 mile-an-hour straight winds in the valley”. Robert feels “very lucky” to know that high tunnels can withstand Marshall’s strong winds. “Being able to water the plants at the roots” using drip irrigation allowed for non diseased plant leaves and planting early season crops next to later season crops allowed for “increased production” are a few of the pros. Also, improved soil and water quality from less use of pesticides and insecticides, reduced run-off, and longer growing seasons in spring and fall are just a few perks to a high tunnel system.
An inside view of a high tunnel system, with the sides rolled up for ventilation (without doors), showing
the diversity and how to stabilize and give structure to plants using netting.
Robert was asked if he was growing his crops for more personal use or to sell in a farmers market. He replied, “For both”. He started planting around April this year and his crops include, but are not limited to, ground cherries, strawberries, asparagus, tomatoes, lettuces, beans, cabbage, blueberries, raspberries, onions, squash, celery, peppers and cucumbers. The ground cherries were of special interest to Robert. He was told by other growers that they are a “high demand item” at farmers markets, so he decided to try them out. Blueberries are another special interest item. Since blueberries require higher acidic soils, Robert removed “three feet of soil and incorporated peat moss” to raise the acidity of the soil. He is also using a liquid product to raise the acidity as well. All of the plants are planted in the ground. When asked about possibly using trellis systems, he said “I haven’t heard any good things about them”. He was certain that planting in the ground is best.
So far, Robert has paid around five thousand dollars for the high tunnel kit and the costs are lower than he expected. He finds the high tunnel rewarding knowing that even if it is raining out, he can still go outside and garden in the tunnel. Having the tunnel can be hard work. But even with all of that work put into the tunnel system, the final reward of supplying your own produce and allowing your produce to be sold at farmers markets to promote sustainable agriculture is one of the greatest feelings available.
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