Sustainability Is More Attainable With High Tunnel Initiative

High tunnels are hitting the mark for farmers who sell their produce at the Athens Farmers Market in Georgia. In the past, the market operated once a week on Saturday mornings between April and October. But now, because some northeast Georgia growers are using the tunnels to extend their growing seasons, the market is open twice a week, from April until mid-December — a full eight months.

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A USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) program has helped these producers produce fruit and vegetables longer, extending the market’s open season by two months.

NRCS’ High Tunnel Initiative provides producers with financial and technical assistance to build high tunnels, which extend the growing season into the cold months. High tunnels, sometimes referred to as hoop houses, have a metal frame wrapped in plastic and are easy and fairly cheap to build and are passively heated.

These structures allow farmers to generate income as the temperature drops in the fall and winter, when the types of crops they grow outdoors are limited. They offer a significant benefit to owners of small farms, limited-resource farmers and organic producers by providing a steady source of income during what would typically be lean months.

The Athens Farmers Market in Northeast Georgia is able to stay open longer because many of its producers have high tunnels, which extend their growing seasons.

Because of their high tunnels, northeast Georgia small farmers like Todd Lister and Jay Payne are able to sell fresh vegetables like tomatoes into the winter season. Previously, most crops would have been gone from their fields much sooner.

“If I didn’t have hoop houses, I would be creeping down right at the end of it,” Lister says, referring to the fact that without the hoop houses, he would have harvested all of his produce weeks earlier.

With NRCS’s help, Lister built a high tunnel on his 5-acre farm in Washington, GA, in 2010. Lister grows spinach, kale, lettuce, beets, carrots, eggplants, peppers, flowers and basil.

Payne grows a variety of produce as well, including beans, okra, peas, peppers, potatoes, and squash. He signed up for the High Tunnel Initiative in 2011. The extended growing season has helped his bottom line — especially because he can now sell more produce for longer periods at the Athens Farmers Market. And Payne says he earns 85% to 90% of his income from selling at the market. The rest of his income is generated through a Community Supported Agriculture network.

As these two farmers and others continue to use their high tunnels to extend their season, provide more locally grown food to their communities through the Athens Farmers Market and share their knowledge, other growers will learn how they can make their farms more economically viable with help from NRCS.

Click here for more information about USDA’s 2012 conservation results

 

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Avatar for William Lamont William Lamont says:

High tunnels are certainly an affordable technology that has permitted growers to extend the marketing season and even to have produce throughout the winter months depending on their location. They have definitely helped supply the winter farmers markets that are emerging in many parts of the country. NRCS's funding of this appropriate technology has helped increase the use and adoption of this technology. Here is Pennsylvania we are seeing high tunnels in the urban environment of Philadelphia right under the gaze of William Penn. Research and extension work is being carried out in many states on high tunnels and I can only see even more high tunnels in the future.

Avatar for Gene Giacomelli Gene Giacomelli says:

The protected environment for growing food crops in high tunnels, or other greenhouse structures, is not only directly beneficial to the bottom-line of the grower by improved production and quality, but also the potential, with proper operation, of improved plant water and nutrient use efficiency, less pesticide, and increased labor efficiency. Hopefully another generation of farmers will remain viable and even expand their businesses, while the growing interest and activities of new people entering the food production business will continue. It is encouraging to realize that the greenhouse design, structural materials, horticultural demonstrations and plant management practices learned during the past 50 years in the USA has now been embraced by those who can satisfy the growing market demand for vegtable crops in the USA.