Cost-share available for high tunnel buildings

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Area farmers were in Marshall on Thursday, March 4, to learn more about Seasonal High Tunnel buildings and the more than $1 million available nationwide in cost-share for installing them.

"I never thought we'd see anything like this," said Paul Duffner, Resource Conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation District.

The seasonal high tunnel program is a unique pilot interim project, that is part of a three-year, 38-state study with the goal of "increasing the availability of locally grown produce in a conservation-friendly way."

The program is an EQIP program offering to small farmers which will provide between 75 percent to 90 percent cost-share for them to build the high tunnel buildings. Nationally, $1.28 million is available for organic growers or those transitioning to organic. Nationally, $150,000 will be available for traditional growers.

"The chance of getting a high tunnel (cost-share) is much higher for those organic growers or those transitioning to organic," he said.

Duffner explained a high tunnel building is a "seasonal polyethylene covered structure which utilizes the sun and no other heat sources. The buildings are used to lengthen the growing season in cool climates."

He showed pictures of the high tunnel buildings in use at the University of Missouri's Bradford farm, and some of the research they are doing there.

Duffner said the buildings differ from greenhouses, because they use no heating source other than the sun, and crops are sowed directly into the ground. A watering system is used inside the building. Some are even built to be removed from over the crops.

He said tomatoes are the number one crop grown in high tunnel buildings, adding that 20 percent of the U.S. tomato supply is grown inside buildings now. The building means farmers can plant in early March and have the earliest tomatoes available at farmer's markets. The growing season can also be extended into the fall.

"Early crop of tomatoes are the most profitable," he said, adding that getting the first tomatoes out to farmers markets and customers is important.

The requirements for the cost-share money include that they must be constructed using manufactured kits; must be on land eligible for Farm Bill Programs; must be a non-structural practice; and must be installed on "existing cultivated cropland."

Duffner said that could be an existing garden, but can't be put on areas that were previously lawn areas.

The maximum size building to be built with cost-share is 2,178 square feet.

"Some might build larger but we only cost-share up to 2,178 feet," he said, adding that some may choose to build two to three smaller ones.

Other requirements include the crops must be grown in the soil and not in pots or benches, no flowers or ornamentals are eligible and no electrical service, permanent heating or mechanical ventilation systems can be used.

A hand cranking ventilation system is used for most of the buildings. The high tunnel must also be at least 6 feet tall and must be made out of at least 6-mil UV resistant greenhouse-grade plastic.

Producers are also required to use the buildings as prescribed for at least four years.

"After four years, you can do what you want," he said.

There is also cost share available for several supporting practices including conservation crop rotation, cover crops, nutrient management, pest management, water diversion, grassed waterways, grassed waterway, critical area planting and underground outlets.

The deadline for applying is March 19. Interested farmers can contact the local NRCS office, 704 N. Miami Ave. in Marshall or call 660-886-7447.