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Producers Get Creative Using Seasonal High Tunnels

story by Randy Henry

Things are looking up in the small farm crop industry.  Farmers who are embracing new ideas in farming technology are finding they can increase crop production, extend growing seasons, and generate extra income.  A new farming trend uses seasonal high tunnels, sometimes called hoop houses, to help farmers grow locally grown, fresh food to sell in their community.

These high tunnels look similar to green houses and are at least six feet in height, which modifies the climate inside to create more favorable growing conditions for vegetables and other specialty crops.  Made of ribs of plastic or metal pipes covered with a layer of plastic sheeting, high tunnels are easy to build, maintain and move.

The USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) recognized the value of these structures and in 2010 delivered a three-year pilot program for seasonal high tunnels offered under the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative for farmers and producers.  The project was started in 2010, and is funded through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the EQIP Organic Initiative, and the Agricultural Management Assistance Program.

Several north-central Texas producers learned about the program from NRCS field offices and workshops offered.  They took advantage of the program, and are using technical assistance from NRCS to find more diverse and creative ways to use the high tunnel technology.

“The seasonal high tunnels are getting a lot of notice in this area of north-central Texas due to the extended growing season and better crop 

production,” said Todnechia Mitchell, NRCS district conservationist in Milam County, Texas.  

The NRCS pilot program will determine the high tunnel’s effectiveness in conserving water quality, reducing pesticide use, maintaining valuable soil nutrients, and better crop yields for producers.

In Milam County, one organic producer is using aquaponics in his seasonal high tunnel structure.  This practice combines a traditional aquaculture such as raising fish or other aquatic animals, and hydroponics that cultivates plants in water.  This unique farming method has advantages such as conservation through constant water reuse resulting in cleaner water for plant production, thanks to the fish contributing nutrients to the water and plants filtering nutrients out of the water.

“As an organic producer, high tunnels increased my crop yield and better water quality from the start,” said Ben Godfrey, organic farmer and owner of Sand Creek Farm and Diary in Cameron, Texas.  

Ben Godfrey, organic producer and owner of Sand Creek Farm and Dairy and Todnechia Mitchell, NRCS di Since 2004, Barking Cat Farms in Hunt County and the city of Dallas has been growing specialty crops
 
A drip irrigation system is used for watering the high tunnel’s plants and optimizes water usage.
 
At Sand Creek Farm and Diary in Cameron, Texas, an inside look in this seasonal high tunnel shows th  

 

Moreover, on the 169-acre Sand Creek Farm and Diary, Godfrey acknowledged the success of his crop yields, including cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and his new crop, strawberries, have produced the highest margin for extra income using high tunnels.  

 “The biggest significant changes in using the high tunnels are a better crop yield and the higher probability of a guaranteed sold product,” Godfrey said.  

 “One of the benefits is less water usage for sure, no chemicals or pesticides, and no fertilizers.  So environmentally, it’s the cleanest production we have on our farm and that includes the higher water quality,” he said.  

Godfrey added the food quality is better and he can get more market share due to the crops being protected in a controlled environment.  He currently has expanded his business into the Austin market and a few surrounding counties near his organic operation in Cameron.  

Up in the Dallas marketplace, Barking Cat Farms has a 20-acre organic farm in Hunt County near Rockwall, along with a Texas licensed nursery totaling 4,000 square-feet in Dallas.  Since 2004, organic farm and nursery owners Laurie Bostic and Kim Martin have grown over 200 varieties of vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers for retail and wholesale customers.  

These two producers use organic intensive, minimum-till methods while utilizing rollers on a steel rail system to maximize their high tunnel capabilities.  Using the rail system to position the high tunnel where they need it most gives them the workload capability of more than one high tunnel while obtaining higher crop yields for better sales of their locally grown products.  

“We are going to be making a quantum leap forward using the high tunnel technology, and be able to do a lot more production,” said Bostic.  

“We read about the rolling rail system technology with high tunnels, so we wanted to apply that on our farm,” she said.  “We had heard that the NRCS high tunnel program would be coming to Texas, and as soon as it did we applied through the NRCS Greenville office and were accepted.”

The farm does not go outside of an average 35-mile radius for its retail and wholesale customers, and it never ships products so locally grown, fresh food is very important to the farm’s success.  Their customer base includes fine Dallas restaurants, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) members, and retail florists in Dallas and Rockwall.

Martin noted the organic farm is already diversified in multiple markets and crop production, such as flowers, herbs, vegetables and some fruits are always needed by the public.

“The extended growing season will give us the opportunity for early production of our sweet and hot peppers, along with fine greens for our Dallas retail restaurant market,” said Martin.  “There is far more demand than organic producers in North Texas for good locally grown food, so in terms of meeting demand, the high tunnels will help quite a bit.”

According to Martin, one of the problems the high tunnels will help control on their farm is pest management, which has been a problem from white-tailed deer, grasshoppers and caterpillars.

“There is a high probability we can exclude larger deer from damaging our specialty crops while having better pest management using the high tunnels, but we cannot eliminate all pests such as grasshoppers and caterpillars even though it can be controlled better than in an outdoor environment,” Martin said.

Bostic and Martin both agreed that their relationship with NRCS prior to getting into the high tunnel program was excellent, and the technical assistance they received over the years made the difference in using the new technology offered from the pilot program.

“We are very pleased with the partnership using NRCS conservation programs on our organic farm, and the results for our locally grown products,” said Bostic.

These producers have taken an opportunity through NRCS Farm Bill programs, added their own creativity and taken small farm production to a whole new level using high tunnel technology.

One of the seasonal high tunnels completed on Sand Creek Farm and Diary has a protective shade cover Inside Seasonal High Tunnel with Roller System  With the sides rolled up on this seasonal high tunne