Unearthing opportunity inside a high tunnel
You want your fruits and vegetables fresh -- and local.
Choices used to be few and far between in the Great Plains during winter, where farmers who grow vegetables outside and unprotected eventually succumb to the changing seasons.
But farmers have found a way around harsh winters by growing vegetables inside of a long, plastic-covered frame called a high tunnel.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Resources Conservation Service last year launched a three-year pilot program to provide funding for the construction of tunnels and to test their efficiency. Hundreds of farmers have signed up.
The structures help retain heat and protect delicate vegetables from harsh weather, said University of Missouri horticulturalist James Quinn.
“It has particular benefits here in Missouri because we have erratic spring and fall weather,” Quinn said, “hail… punishing winds.”
Sometimes fierce rainfall wipes out rows and rows of an expensive investment. The National Weather Service in St. Louis recorded 2008 and 2009 as two of the heaviest rain years on record for Missouri. Last year wasn’t so great either. Usually the state gets around 40 inches, but the total for 2010 hovered somewhere closer to 46.
Aside from weather, Quinn said, the tunnels help farmers meet demand for produce by early April, when farmers markets in the Midwest often start a new season.
“To have any salad green ready to go to the market at that point, you’d pretty well need to have a high tunnel,” Quinn said.
High-tunnel growing is not a new idea, though. Farmers have used variations of-this method for years.
A Kansas State University study on high tunnels found the protected soil seldom freezes and the plastic cover thwarts pests that would normally plague vegetables planted in the open. Researchers also found some vegetables yield a higher harvest when grown inside a high tunnel — in the case of tomatoes, it more than doubled output.
No wonder, then, that the USDA pilot program granted more than $13 million in last year to farmers building high tunnels.
Interested farmers fill out of a four-page application, and if approved, they collected on a large portion of the cost of one high tunnel. Most receive 50 percent of the total cost for plastic and metal piping frames. Others, like minority and female farmers, can be compensated more, from 75 percent to 90 percent.
In the Midwest, the program has really taken off. In 2010, 345 farmers in Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri took advantage of the partial funding.
Happy Hollow Farm in Jamestown, Mo. is owned by Liz Graznak, who was among 159 Missouri farmers who received a high-tunnel grant. The $5,200 grant helped Graznak build an $8,000 high tunnel that she designed to the maximum dimensions allowed under the program’s requirements. The structure was completed in October.
Inside her high tunnel, Graznak’s six sheltered rows of vegetables are shrouded in a second layer of cover. White, breathable nylon material is draped to create a low-tunnel to capture a few more units of warmth. The wind and sharp cold from outside dulls as soon as the door is closed. There is a muffled echo when people speak inside, which creates a calm, safe feeling atmosphere. Graznak said the second tunnel over crops is a vital part of the technique.
“If you are going to grow in here in the winter, you have to put another layer of freeze protection on everything. Things do freeze in here,” she said as she pointed down a row to an exposed bed of lettuce. She was letting that crop die out because it wass too small to bring to market.
Graznak said the leafy greens do really well in this constructed climate.
“If I had come in here and hacked off one of these heads of lettuce, it would’ve been like a little frozen, lettuce popsicle. The greens that you grow typically in a high tunnel in a winter can handle that. They can actually freeze,” she said.
Graznak’s a seasoned farm hand, but 2010 was her first year as a full-time farmer. In addition to selling her food to a Columbia, Mo. farmer’s market, Gaznak also sells shares of her harvest to individual customers in a system called Community Supported Agriculture. Customers signed up and pay upfront to receive weekly shipments of assorted vegetables.
Graznak said she attracted 16 new customers because she can now grow and sell fresh, local and certified organic food in the erratic Missouri winter.