Jul 16, 2011

A New Kind of Barn Raising: Hoophouse 101

On April 2 a work crew of 50 people gathered around a basic frame and boxes and boxes of metal tubing and screws and miscellaneous parts. They came from central Kansas to the far northeast corner of the state to help Dan and Mary Howell construct a hoophouse or high tunnel on their farmstead near Frankfort, Ks.

A high tunnel or a hoophouse, for those new to the terms, is similar to a greenhouse. But it is a framework of hoops of metal or PVC with plastic stretched over the frame with plants grown directly in the ground in beds rather than in containers. Ventilation is passive through roll-up sides and doors on each end, and they are normally not heated in any way except from the sun.

Hoophouses have been springing up all over the country because serious gardeners and market gardeners have discovered the many benefits of growing vegetables and fruits in this climate. As Lynn Byczynski explains, in her book, The Hoophouse Hand-book*, growers are able to plant earlier in the hoophouses, and extend the fall growing season due to the cover. They can grow more delicate crops safe from damaging winds and heavy rains. Quality of the crops is better because watering is controlled through drip irrigation. And growing some of your own food during the dead of winter is even possible.

Although hoophouses were becoming common in and around urban areas as market gardeners adopted the practice to enhance their marketing opportunities, a recent USDA NRCS program, the EQIP Organic Initiative, includes cost-share for hoophouses, which are aimed at reducing pesticide useage and soil erosion, and improving nutrient management, as well as extending the growing season. Many in Kansas have taken advantage of this new practice and opportunity, and hoophouses are popping up throughout the state. The Howell's applied and received cost-share approval to construct a high tunnel. They chose a 30 ft. by 96 ft. model, with sides that roll up and down to provide ventilation.

While Nagengast led the construction work, Carey Rivard of Kansas State University spoke to the group about production possibilities. He stated that hoophouses can produce high value crops per square foot. Specialty crops such as berries do well, but lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, peppers are all cash crops. Cut flowers are also popular. Research is on going as to what works best in what climates and a lot remains to be learned. Markets, though, continue to develop for fresh local produce.

The Howell's are working to develop a customer base, but this first year they are also learning how to operate the structure. Management of a hoophouse is a learning experience; knowing how and when to open it up for cooling, and when to close it down to heavy winds, for instance, and making sure to water regularly.

Dan Howell had the basic frame in the ground ready for the workshop, but the crew on April 2 had to quit short of "pulling the plastic" due to rising winds. Friends got that job done a few days later, and as the photos show, in only six to seven weeks, the Howell's were well on their way to lush, thriving crops of tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers.


* The Hoophouse Handbook and the Growing for Market Hoophouse Update are available from Fairplain Publications through Growing For Market at www.growingformarket.com.

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