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Partners Help Educate South Texas Farmers about Seasonal High Tunnels

By Melissa Blair, Public Affairs Specialist

It was a modern day barn raising, but in this case the barn was a seasonal high tunnel also known as a “hoop house” which was constructed during a two-day workshop at the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley.

More than 25 local community members and agricultural producers attended the workshop at the food bank to learn about the benefits of using high tunnels to expand their crop production and growing season and how to install a hoop house. They also learned information about the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) technical and financial assistance programs to help them with their agricultural operation.

Workshop participants were involved in the modern day barn raising of the seasonal high tunnel.
Juan Raygoza & Cruz Salinas show workshop attendees how to connect the pipes for the high tunnel.
Everyone worked as team to build the seasonal high tunnel at the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley
Hidalgo County District Conservationist Ray Hinojosa share about NRCS programs at workshop

Through NRCS, the Food Bank acquired a $2,500 grant in 2014 through the Strikeforce for Rural Growth and Opportunity Initiative that helped expand their Valley Community Garden. The funds were also used to purchase garden tools and supplies to add a 50 x 35 foot garden plot to the existing garden.

This year through Strikeforce, NRCS provided financial assistance through the Texas/Mexico Border Coalition (TMBC), a community-based organization, to the food bank to acquire the seasonal high tunnel for this workshop training. Texas is one of 21 states within this national initiative. The community garden and high tunnel are excellent examples of how the initiative provides assistance to communities in persistent poverty areas in an effort to improve their quality of life and create conservation opportunities in rural communities and tribes across the nation.

“This event is a great example of how a local partner, a community-based organization, a university program, and a federal agency can collaborate to benefit not just one location, but also the producers who got hands-on training,” said Aisha Cruz, project director with TMBC.

NRCS agronomist, Bruce Henderson, shared with attendees about soil health, and Program Manager, Sonny Vela, shared about NRCS’ pollinator initiative geared toward pollinators and Monarchs in Texas. Hidalgo County District Conservationist, Ray Hinojosa, shared about the technical and financial assistance available through NRCS to help agricultural producers with conservation planning, which can include installation of a high tunnel. Hinojosa said once local growers begin to incorporate soil health, irrigation management and cover crops, they will begin to fully recognize the environmental and health benefits of the seasonal high tunnel.

The Texas Rural Cooperative Center at the University of Texas–Rio Grande Valley (UT-RGV, formerly The University of Texas-Pan American) has been an educational partner with the Food Bank since the garden started last year. Colin Cain, director of the South Texas Rural Producer

Assistance Project, shared about their assistance in helping agricultural producers and staff from the Center helped in putting up the hoop house.

Richard Carrera, director of the Texas Rural Cooperative Center at the UT-RGV, said: “Expanded crops and longer and alternate growing seasons made possible by hoop houses can help South Texas producers and cooperatives better address market needs that can ultimately help their farms’ profitability.”

Rio Grande Valley farmers, Cruz Salinas, and Juan Raygoza, both spoke at the workshop about installing their own hoop houses and how NRCS helped them. They also shared about crop production using a hoop house, and things to keep in mind when building a hoop house, such as placement, and benefits. They also showed participants step-by-step how to put up the hoop house at the food bank, and answered questions along the way. 

Jessica Benavides-Paredes, soil conservationist with NRCS, who assisted with the training said one of the farmers told her that by helping build the seasonal high tunnel, and hearing other people’s experiences, she wasn’t afraid to do it alone anymore. She told Jessica this experience brought it all into perspective for her.

“She really sees herself prospering with yearlong season crops and participating in the NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which helps the farmers with the technical and financial assistance to incorporate a seasonal high tunnel into their conservation planning,” said Benavides-Paredes. “She feels very confident in her beginning small farming future.”  

Chris Bueno, manager of the Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley’s Community Garden and the Pharrmer’s Market said, “The new addition of the hoop house will allow us to plant strawberries as well as plant tomatoes/bell peppers at an earlier time. “One of the great benefits is having these fruits and vegetables for an extended period of time. Families can now also learn how to make their own strawberry jam and also learn how to market what they grow and produce such as the jam at the Pharrmer’s Market.”

Bueno said he appreciated the local farmers who attended and participated, as well as the crew from IDEA Public Schools Farm Program, Brownsville Wellness Coalition, and Hidalgo County Master Gardeners.

For more information on the Food Bank’s community garden or to participate in the Community Garden program, contact Chris Bueno at (956) 904-4525. For Strikeforce opportunities, contact Bertha Venegas at (830) 249-3508. For information on how the NRCS can assist in conservation planning, installing a seasonal high tunnel or natural resource concerns, contact Ray Hinojosa at the Edinburg NRCS office at (956) 383-3002 ext. 3.