Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Lowdown on High Tunnels

If you want locally grown produce in February, you usually don’t have many choices in Missouri other than root vegetables. However, on a chilly February morning at the Columbia Farmers Market, the Thomas family of Share Life Farms is selling not just root veggies but also lettuce, mustard greens and assorted varieties of kale.

Columbia’s farmers' market moves indoors for the winter. Share Life Farms and several other vendors at the market have moved part of their operations indoors too, using high tunnels to lengthen their growing season.
Jim Thomas Sr. (left) and son
Jim Thomas Jr. of Share Life Farms
sell produce grown in a high tunnel.

A high tunnel, also known as a hoop house, is a simple, unheated structure similar to a greenhouse, though crops are grown in the ground, not in pots on benches. A shell of translucent plastic admits sunlight, traps warm air and shields crops from the elements, letting producers plant earlier in the spring and continue harvesting into winter.

“High tunnels can boost production as much as three times by increasing the growing season for fruits and vegetables,” said Jim Quinn, University of Missouri Extension horticulture specialist.

“It can allow a person to make a decent income on small acreage,” said Jim Thomas Jr. of Share Life Farms, Marshall, Mo.

Share Life Farms’ 30-by-96-foot hoop house—which Thomas says is the minimum size to make high tunnel production profitable—will let his family plant and harvest tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and cucumbers about a month earlier than outdoor conditions would permit.

High tunnels can reduce soil erosion and nutrient runoff, and shield plants from excessive rainfall, drought and other extreme weather. They can also help protect crops from insect pests and diseases.

Share Life Farms is one of hundreds of Missouri farms that have taken advantage of a federal cost-sharing program promoting high tunnels. Through the Environmental Quality Incentive Program, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) reimburses eligible producers for a large portion of their construction costs.

A typical 30-by-96-foot high tunnel might cost $6,000-$8,000, Quinn said. Producers accepted into the NRCS program are reimbursed for about two-thirds to three-fourths of the construction costs after the high tunnel has been built.

While high tunnels aren’t terribly expensive compared to greenhouses, the upfront costs can still discourage the many small operations that are striving to meet the growing demand for locally grown produce.

To make the program more accessible to these operations, the Missouri Agricultural and Small Business Development Authority is providing short-term loans to producers approved for the federal program.

“The high tunnel loan program steps in to provide funding for those who don’t want to use their own money for purchases and then wait to be reimbursed by NRCS,” Quinn said. “This may be especially helpful to farmers with lower cash flow or individuals on a tight budget.”

Borrowers pay only monthly interest, at an annualized rate of 7.5 percent, for up to one year.

Another obstacle for some producers is that most of the federal funding for high tunnel construction has been available only to organic farms or farms that are transitioning to organic production, Quinn said.

In response to requests from conventional producers, the NRCS in Missouri directed some high tunnel funding to conventional producers as well. Last year, about a third of high tunnel contracts in Missouri went to conventional farms, according to Paul Duffner, resource conservationist with the Missouri NRCS office.

Other states are now funding high tunnels on conventional farms, including Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska, Quinn said.

The NRCS program is a pilot project, now in its third and final year. Whether the program continues will depend on evaluations of the program outcomes, government funding priorities and other factors.

“Either way, high tunnels are here to stay,” Quinn said. “They have already proved their profitability to many growers, but this program has really given their usage across the state a real boost.”

Since 2003, MU Extension has helped conduct educational programs on high tunnels, including classes and on-farm construction workshops that have drawn capacity crowds.

For more information about the state high tunnel loan program, go to their website.

For information about the federal cost-share program in Missouri, go to their website .

The application deadline for the last 2012 EQIP ranking period is June1. Contact your local USDA/NRCS field office for EQIP High Tunnel application information.

Information about high tunnel research is available from a joint effort of MU Extension, Kansas State Research and Extension, and University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension.

Kansas State University maintains a high tunnel email list. You can Subscribe or browse archives.

(by Curt Wohleber, Senior Information Specialist, University of Missouri Cooperative Media Group)

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