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High Tunnel Houses in Practice

High Tunnel Houses in Practice

Noble Foundation Hosts Employees

The Noble Foundation’s Steve Upson relates his experience with high tunnel houses to NRCS and conservation district employees.
The Noble Foundation’s Steve Upson relates his experience with high tunnel houses to NRCS and conservation district employees. He says he is used to calling them by their more common name of “hoop houses”.

This high tunnel was built by hand from reclaimed oil field materials.
This high tunnel was built by hand from reclaimed oil field materials. To be considered under EQIP producers must build from a kit.

Strawberries blooming about a month ahead of schedule in one of the Noble Foundation’s hoop houses.
Strawberries blooming about a month ahead of schedule in one of the Noble Foundation’s hoop houses. Strawberries are one component of the rotation that the foundation’s research has shown to be profitable through this practice.

Steve Upson, horticulturalist with the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, lifts the door off the hinges April 1, 2010, as he explains to the 26 Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and conservation district employees, what he feels is the most important part of the high tunnel structure when used in Oklahoma. Upson says the strength of the end wall will be paramount to the durability of the portable structures.

To qualify for cost-share assistance when implementing this practice through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) these structures must have no permanent electrical, heating or mechanical ventilation systems and built from a kit. Other specifications can be found at the Oklahoma News webpage. Oklahoma is involved in a three year study testing the usefulness of this practice in this region. Currently, the high tunnel practice is offered through the EQIP Organic Initiative and is open to producers who are certified organic or who are transitioning to organic. Even though the priority sign up date for this year's funding has passed, enrollment is open continuously. Producers signing up now will be considered for next year’s funds.

Upson is on the tail end of his own four-year study, finding the rotation of crops that will be both beneficial for the soil and provide the best income for producers. So far the research has shown that a rotation of spinach, tomato, squash and strawberries is profitable. Upson says although high tunnels have uses in backyard gardens, the scale of the practice being offered is not for hobbyists. The crops grown in a high tunnel are generally labor intensive.

NRCS Agronomist John Mustain said, “The use of high tunnels is new to the NRCS. Here we are trying to put these out into the public and this is the first time we’ve ever seen one. The Noble Foundation has been doing this for years; they gather the data and we can rely on their expertise. It gives us an extra and unique resource to draw from.”

Indeed, the Upson’s research with the Noble Foundation is a important resource. Upson tells the group the foundation's first high tunnel house was set up in 1995. That one rather quickly blew away. Since then, they have used several systems to try to develop one that would work under Oklahoma’s unique weather challenges.

“We have people from Pottawatomie County who are interested in how the structures are supposed to be built and what materials will work with the Oklahoma weather,” said Soil Conservationist Stephanie Guy. Like many other participants, Guy came prepared with the questions producers in her area had about how this practice resolves conservation concerns.

Wind, water, and hail damage due to severe storms are part of the challenges Oklahoma agriculture producers face but crops are also exposed to late freezes and heavy frost during the growing season. High tunnel houses help producers extend the growing season for a variety of specialty crops. Depending on the crop rotation, a high tunnel could extend the season for a month on either end, which gives producers that much more chance to improve their bottom line. High tunnels are intended to help improve plant quality and reduce fuel consumption and air pollution by closing the distance traveled to bring crops to market.

Made out of durable polyethylene materials stretched over a plastic or metal ribbing, these structures make ventilation easier, but Upson encourages the group to make sure producers are leaving room for bees. The structures do a pretty good job of keeping most pests and diseases at bay, but the bees are a necessary part of production. Although portable structures are not intended to prevent freeze damage, the foundation’s research has shown that the temperatures can dip into the 20s and there will still be some protection provided for the plants.

If you are interested in this practice, contact your local NRCS Field Service Center. Further resources to find out more about regional tips for incorporating high tunnels can be found at www.hightunnel.org, www.noble.org, or www.kerrcenter.com.

By Public Affairs Specialist Crystal Young
NRCS April 2010

Last Modified: 04/08/2010

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