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#Fridaysonthefarm: High Tunnel Increases Growing Season for Mississippi Farmer

#Fridaysonthefarm: High Tunnel for Mississippi Farmer Web HeaderStory by Candace Chambers, NRCS Mississippi; photos and video by NRCS

Each Friday, meet farmers, producers and landowners through our #Fridaysonthefarm stories. Visit local farms, ranches, forests and resource areas where NRCS and partners help people help the land.  CLICK HERE to view all #Fridaysonthefarmstories.


In this #Fridaysonthefarm feature, NRCS travels to Crenshaw, Mississippi, where veteran Andrew Key, Jr. builds a farming business and shares affordable, fresh produce with the local community.  Key offers his produce almost year-round now after implementing a high tunnel for a longer growing season and higher crop yield.

#Fridaysonthefarm: High Tunnel for Mississippi Farmer Web Map

 

New Beginnings

Andrew Key, Jr. served in Operation Iraqi Freedom after the 9/11 attacks. He returned home to the small town of Crenshaw, Mississippi, and difficult economic times. Despite his years of experience with manufacturing companies, Key was laid-off shortly after his arrival. 

#Fridaysonthefarm: High Tunnel for Mississippi Farmer Web Photo 1

 

These times presented Key with challenges and an opportunity - to embark upon a new venture.  He purchased four acres of land and began growing vegetables in his backyard. The decision led to unexpected success and joy for Key, and for his community.

Good for the Farmer

After a community member told Key about the NRCS High Tunnel Initiative, he visited the USDA Service Center in Quitman County to learn about improving his vegetable growing operation.

High tunnels are polyethylene, plastic or fabric covered hoop structures, with plants grown in raised beds or grown directly in the ground.  Because the growing conditions are controlled, plant health is optimized.

Key first obtained his farm and tract number from the Farm Service Agency (FSA). Then he worked with NRCS Soil Conservation Technician Larry Pride and NRCS Soil Conservationist Kathy Respess to complete the steps for a high tunnel.

#Fridaysonthefarm: High Tunnel for Mississippi Farmer Web Photo 2

 

“Mr. Key was new at the game and he came in and got our assistance. We walked him through all of the steps to get to where he is now,” says Pride.

Key qualified for financial assistance through the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), a voluntary program that provides financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers to plan and implement conservation practices that improve soil, water, plant, animal, air and related natural resources on agricultural land and non-industrial private forestland. Through the program, Key received a high tunnel in October 2015.

High tunnels protect plants from severe weather and allow farmers to extend their growing seasons —   growing earlier into the spring, later into the fall, and sometimes, year-round. And because high tunnels   prevent direct rainfall from reaching plants, farmers can use precise tools like drip irri

 

After just three weeks of installation, his crops were producing a greater yield.

“I never was able to sell vegetables after October, but after the high tunnel came up, I was able to sell into the winter season,” says Key.

Kathy Respess has worked with Andrew Key throughout the years and describes his story as an example of hard work and dedication.

“I think that Andrew is definitely a success story. He was able to recognize the talents he had for growing crops,” says Respess. “By using our services through the NRCS office and cooperating with the Farm Service Agency, he was able to make his dreams come true by being able to have his own high tunnel. Now, he’s producing crops for sale.”

Good for the Community

Cabbage, tomatoes, broccoli, lettuce, cucumbers, squash, okra and zucchini squash are among the vegetables that Key grows in his high tunnel. 

Perhaps the best thing about high tunnels is that they help farmers like Key provide communities with healthy local food for much of the year – food that requires less energy and provides communities with greater food security.

#Fridaysonthefarm: High Tunnel for Mississippi Farmer Web Photo 5

 

Key enjoys providing fresh, locally-grown crops to his community of Quitman County, considered a food desert based on the lack of fresh produce. Key’s work coincides with the USDA’s efforts to increase awareness of and access to healthy food options.

“We don’t have vegetables here in our community. You have to go so far, whether it’s Senatobia, Batesville, Clarksdale, Marks or wherever the local store is,” says Key. “At the two stores we have in town, when they do have vegetables, they are really sky high." 

#Fridaysonthefarm: High Tunnel for Mississippi Farmer Web Photo 5

 

He smiles and adds, "I figured by me starting a vegetable business, it’ll help me as far as doing something I really enjoy doing and at the same time, supplying vegetables to the community and surrounding areas.”

A Hopeful Future

Key is thankful for the NRCS guidance and assistance over the years. “If it would not have been for NRCS, I probably would have gave up gardening," he says. "The high tunnel made my crop yield quicker and bigger. I probably would not have been as far as I am now."

Key often reaches out to older farmers for advice on managing his crops and refers back to the knowledge he gained as a child while working with his father on their family land. 

He hopes his children learn the value of hard work, whether through farming or in other areas of life.

Check out Andrew Key's full story in the video below.

Follow the #Fridaysonthefarm and other voluntary conservation stories on @USDA_NRCS Twitter and @USDA Facebook. View the interactive ESRI storymap of this #Fridaysonthefarm feature.