Texas high tunnels boost production possibilities for urban farmers
story by Beverly Moseley
When people hear the words “Valley Girl” and “Celebrity,” their initial thought is Hollywood, not the sought after
tomato varieties sold at farmer’s markets surrounding the greater Houston area.
Those are just some of the produce selections customers expect to find at Elvis d’Agrella’s farmer's market stand in Conroe, Texas. And now, Elvis’ customers can purchase summer produce well into the winter months since he and his wife, Pat, constructed a seasonal high tunnel, which resembles a greenhouse, at their PEAS Farm outside the bustling urban city of Conroe.
The farm’s name is derived from the initials of the four owners – Pat, Elvis, Ashley their daughter, and her fiance Steven.
“Our goal was to produce as much of the vegetables that you see here growing in the winter time that you would normally see growing in the summer time,” said Elvis, as he walked among the high tunnel’s squash and tomato plants in mid-November.
The d’Agrella’s built the structure in September in an effort to extend the growing seasons and availability of their commercial fresh fruits and vegetables year-round. Mission accomplished. In late November, their customers were able to buy hand-picked fresh vegetables at the numerous weekly farmer's markets that the family sells produce at which also include Tomball, Magnolia and Houston.
“They know if I’m giving them a tomato, it was picked in the last three to four days,” said Pat, who is also a full time school teacher and farms side-by-side with Elvis.
Building a dream
Elvis was searching the Internet one day when he came across the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) national Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative which offers financial assistance based off a payment rate to qualified producers for construction of a high tunnel through the agency’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). The couple immediately contacted their local NRCS field office in Houston and set up an appointment with Raul Villarreal, NRCS district conservationist.
“When you think about working with the government, you think of the red tape and it’s going to be a hassle. Actually, it couldn’t have been anything other than the most wonderful experience I’ve ever done. There was some paperwork, but they walked us through it,” said Pat. “They called us ahead of time so that when we came to the office we were prepared with what we needed. He walked us through what our obligation was and what NRCS was going to do for us. It was a wonderful experience from beginning to end and it was in a timely fashion.”
The d’Agrella’s contract application was approved. Based on their farm goals and discussions with Villarreal, the d’Agrella’s decided to build a 2,160 square feet high tunnel. They also made the decision to construct the structure themselves enlisting the help of their entire family. Program participants do have the option to have a contractor build the structure which can take a couple days to finish.
“We got a call from the freight company one day who said they had a bunch of boxes for us and so they came out on a big semi truck and we had to take our tractor and off load it and had about 5,000 pieces and we said we got a little tinker toy to assemble and we got the crew together and it took us about two weeks construction time putting it all together,” Elvis said.
NRCS works alongside urban farmers
Trey Bethke, NRCS district conservationist, recently visited the d’Agrella’s farm to see first-hand their operation. Bethke has worked with producers in Waller County through the Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative and had heard from Villarreal about the d’Agrellas success.
“The NRCS certainly encourages potential participants to come into the offices. If you have an interest in growing commercially available produce locally, this program is really designed for you. I have a client that uses a high tunnel for fresh grown cut flowers in Waller County,” Bethke said. “Don’t think you’re ineligible. Come talk to us first.”
Bethke explained that these structures can provide numerous benefits such as extended growing seasons, improved plant, soil and air quality, along with a reduction in energy usage. Nutrient and pesticide transport or drift also can be reduced.
He added that it is important for the landowner to establish their farming operation’s goals and objectives up front when determining their financial and time commitment, along with the high tunnel’s size.
“You can get a smaller one if it fits your place better and that may be the case for more of our urban farmer type folks that do not have the land space,” said Bethke.
According to Allen Smith, NRCS program manager, a seasonal high tunnel structure can average about $3.10 per square foot.
The d’Agrellas said they already are realizing natural resources and economic benefits from the enclosed high tunnel, which also has sides that can be rolled up or down. Elvis said the drought of 2011 had him using upwards of 75 gallons of water a day on his field crops. Under the tunnel’s cover, using a drip irrigation system, he said he averages about 5 gallons of water a day.
“What we have done is put down the landscape fabric on the ground which retains a lot of moisture and on top of that only put the drip irrigation where the plants need it, where the plants are going to be. … So we have a significant savings of water that we are realizing. It also reduces our
electricity usage pumping all that water,” Elvis said.
The landscape fabric helps reduce water evaporation and plant transpiration, along with weed growth which can reduce herbicide use, he noted.
The fact that the sides roll up and down also allows Elvis to more closely regulate the temperature inside the structure allowing for cooler growing temperatures in the summer and warmer growing temperatures in the winter.
Surrounding the farm’s new high tunnel are the hog and chicken pens and thousands of strawberries are sprouting out in the field. Recently planted Navel orange trees greet visitors and pumpkins left over from the fall are still available to customers. There is even a large bee population kept on the farm for plant pollination.
Fresh, affordable, sustainable and locally grown food is the d’Agrellas way of farming and doing business. Whether it is fruit, vegetables, eggs, meat or honey from their bees, the PEAS Farm owners see high tunnel expansion in their farming future.
"It’s a pleasure to work inside the high tunnel. We are looking to possibly going to a second high tunnel probably next spring,” said Elvis.