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Seasonal High Tunnel & Organic Transition Initiatives

Seasonal High Tunnel established to successfully plant hanging organic tomatoesA new market has developed in the Caribbean Area – customers are willing to pay more for organic and nutritional products. To help local farmers meet increased demand for specialty and organic products, the NRCS Caribbean Area (CB) has launched two new EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) Initiatives to assist producers: Seasonal High Tunnels and Organic Transition. The Seasonal High Tunnel (SHT) and Organic Transition (OT) Initiatives are voluntary programs that provide financial and technical assistance to farmers.

The Seasonal High Tunnel Practice is a polyethylene-covered structure called a Hoop House – similar to a greenhouse but with no electrical, heating, and/or mechanical ventilation system – that is used to cover high-value crops to extend the growing season in an environmentally-safe manner. Seasonal high tunnels may look like greenhouses, but they are managed differently.  In seasonal high tunnels, plants are grown directly in the ground.  Also, High tunnels don't use heaters or lights - opening and closing the high tunnel regulated the sun's heat.  High tunnels also control the rain and help to save energy costs, controlling where to put water and fertilizer so farmers can grow a greater variety of vegetables for a longer time period.

Organic Transition helps farmers to move from standard to organic production by addressing natural resource concerns and implementing new practices to meet the requirements of the National Organic Program (NOP, specifically reduction or elimination of chemical pesticides and fertilizers). Under the controlled conditions used in seasonal high tunnels and organic farming, farmers can greatly reduce water, energy, pesticide and fertilizer use. These practices save resources and are less complex to manage than outdoor/field conditions, where even climate change can affect crops. 

In fiscal year 2013, NRCS-CB received 23 applications for these new programs, and 12 more applicants have been deferred to fiscal year 2014. NRCS staff have visited farmers, posted announcements in farm and garden stores, and delivered public outreach presentations encouraging participation in these programs. Says NRCS Natural Resources Specialist, Ismael Matos, “I have learned a lot in this new field of planting under roofed conditions, and our clients have developed new methods of planting under semi-organic conditions.”

Chayote is a runner plant that can be planted with support stakes. Once established, it provides a canopy that protect soil from sheet erosion and shades out weeds.These new initiatives have helped create several success stories of young farmers starting new agri-businesses and learning to be both employers and farmers. By using seasonal high tunnels, they can produce goods to support a family on a very limited piece of land. NRCS-CB has distributed Hoop Houses around the Caribbean and we are expecting to have a long list of eligible farmers in both initiatives next year. 

We met successful farmers producing on 500-meter lots using practices such as hydroponics and aquaponics. I made field trips with potential clients to visit these operations and learn from the farmers, and as a result a partnership and network between these farmers was developed!” said Mr. Matos. 

The new SHT/OT farmers are learning from each other and sharing ideas, clients and even physical labor! Some of the farmers had previously planted under outdoor field conditions, and decided to move to producing in a controlled environment. Others are new farmers with experience in professional fields (organizing, writing proposals, record keeping) but with little experience in farming. Both groups of farmers were fast learners, and took several workshops about planting organically under a shade roof (hoop houses).

NRCS-CB thanks our partners in these initiatives: our sister agencies (FSA) that provided operational loans to supplement the farmers’ budgets, as well as the PR Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Extension Service and Cooperative Extension Service who provided training and technical assistance to farmers.

For details, please contact Mr. Ismael Matos at 787-766-5206 x 128 or Ismael.matos@pr.usda.gov. Learn more about the USDA-NRCS Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative and the Organic Initiative at http://go.usa.gov/Uo9. Find out about other NRCS initiatives and programs at http://go.usa.gov/UoX.