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Extending the Season for Local Produce in Big Stone County

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Extending the Season for Local Produce in Big Stone County.

Jan Eifealdt of Sunrise Views Farms in Big Stone CountyExtending the Season for growing produce in Minnesota is taken seriously in Big Stone County, just west of US Highway 75.  Starting the season early provides a jump start on growing vegetables when it is still cold outside.

Jan Eifealdt of Sunrise Views Farms in Big Stone County is now able to extend her growing season because she has installed a high-tunnel structure on her farm.  The high-tunnel structure now allows her to grow cool season crops early when it is still cold outside!

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.

Eifealdt erected her 96’x24’ high tunnel in the fall of 2010 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. 

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.”

 “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?”  said Eifealdt.  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.

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