May 3, 2012

Jill Elmers, center, explains her
production system in her high tunnel.

High Tunnel Workshops Showcase Opportunities in NE Kansas 

by Joanna Voigt

What could be better than spending a warm, sunny, spring morning outdoors? How about spending a warm, sunny, spring morning observing high tunnel production in action, followed by an afternoon of high tunnel discussion from experts and experienced high tunnel farmers? For 50 lucky folks, this opportunity became reality at a recent Farm Tour and High Tunnel Workshop hosted by the Kansas Rural Center and K-State Research and Extension, and the Kansas SARE Program.

On March 13, farm tour attendees explored Jill Elmers’ “Moon on the Meadow Farm” located on the east edge of Lawrence, Kansas. Elmers produces about 3 plus acres of vegetables, herbs, and small fruits, and sells her produce through a 125-person CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) subscription service, as well as at the Downtown Lawrence Farmers’ Market and to local grocery stores and restaurants. Strategic management of her four, 20’ x 96’ high tunnels (also referred to as hoophouses) allows Elmers to significantly extend the growing season for a number of crops and to grow a few crops year-round.

Elmers, who has been farming for nine years with six as a certified organic grower, had beets, spinach, strawberries, and carrots growing in her high tunnels, along with several rows of cover crops.

Elmers described the high tunnel building process; outlined management basics such as irrigation, ventilation, and possible heat sources; and discussed strategies for coping with roof run-off and pests in the high tunnel. Elmers detailed which crops she plants in her high tunnels, how she maintains soil health inside the tunnels, and how utilizing high tunnels benefits her farm operation.

One of Elmers’ high tunnels was acquired through the USDA NRCS EQIP Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative program, and Elmers said the grant application process was fairly easy. Two of Elmers’ high tunnels are located down the road from her farm on additional land she recently acquired. Elmers is teaming up with K-State to study soil microbiology on the new farm during the transition to organic practices. One facet of the study will compare soil microbiology of soil inside the high tunnels with that of soil in the fields.

As the tour wrapped up, Elmers remarked, “I wish had ten high tunnels because the ability to control Mother Nature outweighs any challenges that high tunnels present. There is much greater demand for the produce I grow than I am able to fill.”

Above are two of Jill Elmers' four tunnels where she raises vegetables, herbs, and small fruits on her farm on the east edge of Lawrence, Ks.  In March KRC hosted two high tunnel workshops-- the tour and classroom workshop involving Jill’s operation, and a second construction workshop involving actual hands-on experience with building the structure.  

In the afternoon, workshop attendees headed to the Douglas County Extension Center for more information on high tunnels. Cary Rivard, Extension Vegetable and Fruit Crop Specialist provided a presentation on high tunnel construction, produc-tion, and management. Rivard has a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology from North Carolina State University where his research focused on high tunnel production of grafted tomatoes. Rivard, who joined KSU within the last year, is involved in high tunnel research and fieldwork in his position at the K-State Research and Extension Center in Olathe.

“The primary reason for and benefit of high tunnels in Kansas is the ability to micro-manage the growing climate, “ Rivard stated. “This provides greater production stability, which is a huge benefit for farmers in Kansas who face highly variable weather conditions. High tunnels provide protection from frost, wind, thermal stress, storm damage, disease, and even some protection against heat if shade cloths and ventilation are used effectively.”

High tunnels, he also explained, extend the growing season by about 30 days on either end, opening access to new markets such as restaurants, schools, and grocery stores.

Rivard outlined different types of high tunnels that are available as kits and discussed potential upgrades to the basic structure, such as plumbing, heat, electricity, insulation, and automation. Rivard said that although these options aren’t necessary and can be expensive, they do make high tunnel management a lot easier.

“The most important part of the high tunnel construction process is setting the footings with absolute precision,” Rivard stressed. The degree of accuracy with which the footings are placed, Rivard cautioned, will determine the ease and relative success of the rest of the building process. 

The high tunnel provides protection for earlier crops. Above lettuce, spinach and cover crops  thrive in mid- March at the Moon on the Meadow Farm .

“High tunnels should be oriented 90 degrees to the prevailing wind in order to promote ventilation during the summer months, and should be placed over the highest quality soil on the farm in order to maximize returns on the investment,” Rivard stated. This point was stressed a number of times throughout the farm tour and workshop because a high tunnel is a significant investment at the outset. Planting high-value crops is another strategy for recouping the cost of the high tunnel.

Rivard discussed a number of crops that thrive in high tunnels and make good economic sense: cut flowers; small fruits such as raspberries, strawberries, and melons; and high-value vegetables such as lettuce, spinach, cucumbers, peppers, onion transplants, and tomatoes. Rivard said tomatoes are the most popular crop grown in high tunnels and that heirloom varieties are easier to grow in a high tunnel than outside because the climate and moisture control inside the high tunnel reduces cracking.

A panel of five farmers who use high tunnels in their farming operations also talked about their experiences building and managing high tunnels. Dan Nagengast, from Wild Onion Farm outside of Lawrence, has been utilizing high tunnels in a variety of ways for 10 years and has had as many as four, 20’ x 96’ high tunnels in operation at once.

Stephanie Thomas and Thomas Maiorana, from Spring Creek Farm outside of Baldwin City, have four high tunnels that range in size and method of construction, including one built using reclaimed rebar that was bent into the “hoop” shape on-site.

Dan and Mary Howell, from Howell Farms outside of Frankfort in Marshall County are new to high tunnel production. They built theirs in April 2011 through the USDA NRCS EQIP Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative program. Dan Howell joked that he and Mary had a lot of information on what not to do, but in fact, their contribution to the discussion as first year high tunnel producers contained valuable information for others interested in getting started.

One thing the Howells lamented was not having a shade cloth for their high tunnel last summer, considering what a scorcher the summer turned out to be. Thomas said that she and Maiorana had not used shade cloths at first but do now, and that the difference is “incredible”. Nagengast said he also uses shade cloths and highly recommends them.

Nagengast and Thomas reiterated Rivard’s statement that “adding a high tunnel makes the ground under it the most valuable piece of real estate on the farm”, so special attention should be paid to what is planted in the high tunnel. Nagengast commented that if you plant accordingly, recouping the investment happens very quickly.

All the farmers agreed that there is a growing demand for fresh, local food and that high tunnels offer a means to help fill this demand, and also offer an entry point into farming, or an additional enterprise on an existing farm.
    Joanna Voigt is a free lance writer living near Lawrence.

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