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High Tunnels Protect Crops through Rain, Sleet, and Snow

Mississippi experienced record low temperatures during the months of December and into the New Year. Snow accumulation reached approximately 2 inches, ice was present on roadways, and temperatures dropped to single digits. This unexpected weather had an effect on citizens statewide and especially farmers. 

Dr. Ayers-Elliott uproots a growing carrot to show how it is still growing in the high tunnel.

Dr. Cindy Ayers- Elliott, owner of Foot Print Farms in Jackson, Miss. knew that the cold weather would affect her crops, so she prepared beforehand. She checked to ensure that the produce grown in her six high tunnels were ready to survive the unusual wintry weather mix. 

“We came in and watered the plants, so the water would keep some of the heat in the soil in case the sun came out," said Ayers-Elliott. "We had no idea that we would have freezing temperatures for more than three days."

Weather protection is one of the purposes of high tunnels, which are greenhouse-like structures commonly called “hoop houses.” High Tunnel Systems, which Ayers-Elliott obtained through the EQIP program, extend the growing season, improve plant and soil quality, and protect plants from severe weather, allowing farmers to extend their growing seasons. Drip irrigation is often used to deliver water and nutrients to plants. 

In each of Ayers-Elliott's high tunnels, one can see how the crops still flourished despite freezing temperatures. Since she marks each of the high tunnels for tracking and identification purposes, she was able to monitor the crops more efficiently.  

High Tunnel #1 houses herbs such as parsley, cilantro, and mint. The crops benefited from the entrapped heat inside the high tunnel, which is 10-15 degrees warmer than the atmosphere around it. In high tunnel #2, Ayers-Elliott is growing cover crops. 

"The beauty of the tunnels is that you have to rotate crops within the tunnel in order to rejuvenate the soil. We rotate cilantro, parsley, and other families of plants," said Ayers-Elliott.

Ayers- Elliott was pleased with the results of the lettuce as it continued to grow during the winter weather.

The other high tunnels feature prepared grounds for new crops, along with crops that are steadily growing, which include kale, collard greens, and carrots. These crops survived the frost as a result of their presence in the high tunnel. 

During the extended range of cold weather, Dr. Ayers-Elliott decided to harvest her tomatoes, although they were still growing in the high tunnels. She stored the unripe tomatoes in her heating facility, so they could continue the ripening process. 

Although Ayers-Elliott had great success in sustaining her crops, some, unfortunately, did not survive. 
"It was time for some things to die and we didn’t have time to get them out of the high tunnels. For instance, the broccoli would have been fine if the frost did not last for as many days as it did," said Ayers-Elliott. The kale continued to flourish in the high tunnel.
 
Overall, Ayers-Elliott is satisfied with the efficiency of her high tunnels, including the mulch which helped entrap heat in the soil. Her preparation and use of high tunnels has enabled her to still have enough produce for the market.