High hoops for local food production

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Farmer Earl Snell makes plastic taut while helping a neighbor construct hoop house in Skipperville, Ala. (Photo courtesy USDA)
About the author
Reporter, KBIA
Jessica Naudziunas was Harvest's reporter in Columbia, Mo. from summer 2010 through spring 2012.

Traveling across the Midwest, maybe you have seen the seasonal “high tunnels.”

More than 150 have been built in Missouri alone in the last year as part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture pilot project.

The program pays farmers 50 percent to 90 percent of the cost of the greenhouse-like planting structures, also known as hoop houses, which harness the power of the sun to grow food.  They’re made of simple materials: a slightly translucent plastic cover and poles to create a protective space, especially in cold weather.  In Missouri, the high tunnels are extending the growing season for everything from swiss chard to summer-loving tomatoes. 

The pilot program aims to engage beginning and minority farmers.

 “We’re helping them get started in agriculture in something that they’ve wanted to do for a while,” said Karen Brinkman, a conservationist with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.  “And, not only are we educating them in the opportunities available through NRCS, but they as local producers are educating the USDA to a whole other side of agriculture that we haven’t traditionally worked with.”

The hoop houses have sprung up all across the country.  More than 2,400 farmers in 43 states were awarded $13 million in grant funding. Missouri’s 159 tunnels rank fourth, with just over $700,000 in grants. In Iowa, 114 farmers received almost $500,000; In Kansas, 49 farmers received $190,000; and in Nebraska, 23 farmers received just over $100,000.

Local food has slowly moved into the USDA’s spotlight in the last five years, and Brickman said if a farmer uses grant money to build a high tunnel, they’re encouraged to make sure that food stays in the region.

The USDA also is collecting information to determine if the enclosed growing systems lower the cost of growing food, save on energy and resources, and protect crops from harsh conditions or the need to use fertilizer.