High Tunnel Initiative
News of the High Tunnel program came to me in the usual rural Montana way, via neighbor. Wendy Williams, an NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) employee and former neighbor, called me and said, ”Are you interested in applying for the Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative?” My first response was, “What?” I had never heard the term high tunnel. She explained that I could build a very low-cost, indoor growing tunnel through an NRCS grant. Having grown vegetables in challenging weather conditions outside Bozeman, Montana for many years, I was immediately interested. In fact, owning a greenhouse had been my life-long dream.
While the high tunnel hoop house is distinguished from a greenhouse by the fact that it has no electric heat source, I knew that any structure that could retain heat and provide protection from wind would be a bonus for my tender tomatoes. The seasonal high tunnel pilot is part of the USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program. Its purpose is to determine if high tunnels are effective in reducing pesticide use, keeping vital nutrients in the soil, and increasing yields. Effective? Boy, I’ll say.
My tomato plants quickly shot to over five feet in the balmy, often steamy atmosphere of the high tunnel. Peppers seemed to breathe a sigh of relief, and then stretched skyward, popping out yields like I had never seen before. Cucumbers rambled, almost as I watched, giving up bushels of bright green fruit. But the dahlias were the crowning glory of the hoop house. With no wind to beat them down, and a swath of seemingly tropical air, they bloomed in luxurious profusion. The yields were double and triple that of previous years. So one objective of the program was certainly met: for farmers to increase availability of local food. We sold hundreds of pounds of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and carrots at the local markets.
The 6 mil plastic sheeting captures solar energy with efficiency, creating a warm climate for heat loving crops. While the nighttime temperature can quickly drop, the soil and air remain warmer than outside temps. I found that the high tunnel extended my growing season for eight weeks. I planted four weeks earlier in April, and harvested a month later in October. The dozens of flats of ripe, gold, scarlet and deep purple heirloom tomatoes were a welcome sight after years of hard green fruit.
To be eligible for the program, potential participants must demonstrate that they have already been earning at least $1,000 in agricultural products produced or sold from the operation or from the land in which an owner has an interest. The land where the structure will be erected must currently be cultivated. If you qualify, you’ll need some strong arms to erect the structure. My husband and sons served as my workforce, willingly digging 38 two-foot anchor holes in our rocky soil, and carefully erecting the structure. The wheelbarrow loads full of kale, carrots, radishes and tomatoes attest to the program’s success.
You can learn more about high tunnels at the NRCS Website: www.mt.nrcs.usda.gov/contact/offices/localoff.html. Application deadlines for 2012 are Feb. 3, March 30 and June 1.