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Missouri Farmer Realizes High Rewards from High Tunnels

Back in 1995, Carl Saunders wouldn’t have guessed that he someday would be earning a living from the four acres surrounding his home near Warrenton, Missouri.

Saunders’ job as manager at a local import-export company paid the bills, but his knack for gardening was used primarily to provide fresh vegetables for him and his wife Robin. He also had shopped at farmers’ markets, so he was well aware of the market for fresh, locally grown foods. It’s a market that continues to gain momentum locally and nationally. The USDA has an active “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative. The Missouri Department of Agriculture has a “Grow Your Farm” program and a high tunnel loan program in cooperation with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

“I had always gardened, but I hadn’t been involved in production agriculture at all,” Saunders says. “But as the local food movement continued to develop, I saw an opportunity and I just needed to take what I was doing and look at it from a production and commercial standpoint.”

Saunders grows a variety of vegetables at “Yellow Dog Farm.” One of his marketing niches is in salad greens, which he harvests by hand, hydro cools and delivers to commercial accounts in the St. Louis area as well as farmers’ markets in the area and a large CSA (community supported agriculture operation) in St. Louis.

Saunders utilizes three seasonal high tunnels to help him expand his growing season in the spring and fall, and to maximize his time. High tunnels are polyethylene-covered structures that capture solar energy to modify the environment and create more favorable growing conditions. They look like greenhouses, but are different in that high-tunnel crops are grown in the soil, not in raised pots as is the case with greenhouses.

Saunders built his first high tunnel in 2007 and added two more in 2010. One of the high tunnels was funded mostly through the high tunnel initiative managed by NRCS. Through the initiative, 122 qualified applicants received funding from NRCS last year to purchase kits to erect high tunnels up to 2,178-square-feet. Saunders added some of his own funding to the NRCS payment to construct a 30-foot-by-96-foot high tunnel (2,880 square feet).

“The program was great for me because I was familiar with high tunnels, and it was a great opportunity for me to add growing capacity and seasonal availability,” Saunders says.

Tammy Teeter, NRCS district conservationist, says Saunders was one of the first landowners in Warren County to apply for a high tunnel.

“He really taught us more about high tunnels than anyone else,” Teeter says. “He came in to sign up and we didn’t know much about them yet, because the program was so new.”

Saunders says the high tunnels allow him to extend his growing season and to maximize his time.

“The high tunnels give me a six-week jump in the spring, and they are extending my growing season four to five weeks in the fall,” he says. “And another advantage for me, from a labor standpoint, is that when it’s raining outside, I’m working in the high tunnels. Since I provide my own labor, it gives me something to do instead of sitting around and waiting for the weather to improve.”

In November, Saunders was cutting and delivering salad greens from one high tunnel while salad greens in the adjacent high tunnel were just beginning to emerge. The younger crop of salad greens would be harvested in December and January, during the harshest months of the Missouri winter.

“It’s hard to believe that this turns into that,” Saunders said in comparing the growth in the adjacent high tunnels. “But it does.”

It also helps turn a few acres into a way of life.

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