Growing crops under cover
With Pocahontas County's relatively brief growing season, it just makes sense to do everything you can to get a few more months of production out of your garden in early spring and the tail-end of fall. Some gardeners are using high tunnels, or hoop houses, to do just that.
A high tunnel is a metal framed structure covered in durable polyethylene — basically a greenhouse using plastic sheeting instead of glass. They are cheaper to build than a greenhouse, but what some growers in the area may not be aware of is there is a cost-sharing program available through the USDA that will cover the majority of the cost of building one.
The pilot program, through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, started three years ago, and it's been successful enough that the agency is still funding new projects. According to Susan Davis, district conservationist at the Buckeye USDA office, there aren't many restrictions on who is eligible for the project.
“You have to either have land that you own or have a lease on it for at least the length of the contract,” she said. “So you're looking at like a three-to-five year lease on the land. Then you have to have produced or sold at least $1,000 worth of ag products to be eligible. Once somebody comes in and says 'yes I want to participate, I want to sign up,' we go take a site visit and see what it looks like.”
Davis said there are a few things they are looking for to determine whether a site is acceptable for a high tunnel.
“Do we have adequate sunlight? Is anything in the area around it going to impact it? There's a twenty-foot footprint around it, so whatever area you're looking at putting the high tunnel, you need to have an additional 20 feet around it and other structures.”
Davis said the twenty-foot buffer is to prevent shade from buildings or trees from affecting the amount of sunlight the high tunnel receives. She said potential sites in flood plains wouldn't be considered either.
“Since the government is helping to pay a square-foot rate on the construction of these, we're specing it to meet certain criteria,” she said. “That way the high tunnel isn't just going to last a year and fall apart.”
According to Davis, the application process is relatively painless.
“You sign up, fill out different eligibility forms like you would for any of our other programs, and we submit your application for ranking. You would answer questions like whether you're going to be doing nutrient management, whether you're going to be doing irrigation in it, are you going to grow organic?
Then a numeric value is assessed and we start at the top of the list for all the applications. We just go from the highest score to the lowest.”
The USDA also provides technical oversight during construction.
“When someone comes in we give them background on what's required,” Davis said. “When you accept our cost-share, you're agreeing that you'll build it to our specs.”
Once a grower applies for the cost-share, it could take as long as a year before a contract is drawn up. Davis said there's no guarantee that an application will be approved. She said the USDA may get three-quarters of the way down the list of applicants and then run out of money, but people can leave their application in for the next funding cycle.
USDA soil conservation technician Adam Merritt talked about how the cost-share program works.
“The producer, if they get a contract, would install the high tunnel and get it complete,” he said. “At that point, we would come out and look at it and make sure it meets all the specifications and criteria. That's when we can administer the payment for it. You don't get any money up front.”
Merritt said every state has their own criteria for the high tunnel program.
“Before a producer even orders the package, we want them to send us the spec sheets so we can approve it before they start to get it up. If a manufacturer in North Carolina builds a high tunnel, it might meet North Carolina specs, but they might not get three feet of snow like we do here sometimes.”
Merritt said the USDA office does a good job of walking people through the process of building a high tunnel.
“We don't just toss a bunch of papers at you and wish you good luck,” joked Merritt. “And the construction isn't too overwhelming. I'd say most people can do it themselves. In Greenbrier County there have been a few people that have had the manufacturer come in and install it for them, within a day or two days — it's there and done. A lot of people like that, but if somebody had the time, maybe a week, you could get one up. And we're there to provide as much technical assistance as we can getting it up.”
According to Merritt, the program funds other components of a high tunnel system like gutters, rain gatherers, and pipelines, but they can't approve the drilling of new wells. Merritt said typically you can get enough rain run-off from the high tunnel itself for irrigation.
Merritt said the program seems successful and he doesn't see it going away anytime soon. He said the benefits of gardening in a high tunnel are endless.
“I know one guy had put in strawberries in October, to be able to harvest in the spring. People are getting tomatoes out of them when other people are planting them. We've had a couple people — with the first ones — that were growing greens all winter long. There aren't any blemishes or marks on the produce that comes out of them. Most of the time, it looks like something right out of the supermarket.”
Davis said some of the veggies you usually start in March or August are being grown nearly all winter.
“We've been in a couple of them when it's probably twenty degrees outside, you go in there and it's like a sauna — sixty or seventy degrees,” she said.
The high tunnels have to be built twice as long as they are wide for stability and a typical high tunnel would be about 1,200 square feet. Merritt said something that size would probably cost between $6,000-$7,000. He said they're relatively maintenance free and the only thing that ever needs to be replaced is the plastic sheeting every few years.
Merritt said there have been four high tunnels built in Pocahontas County through the program the past few years, and word is spreading — they've got eight applications in right now.
“This is your money, our money — tax dollars,” said Merritt.
Clay Condon, of Lobelia, recently finished construction on his high tunnel. He said his friend Joe Heathcock told him about the program and he jumped on the opportunity. He plans to grow cold-hardy crops this winter, and sell vegetables to Pocahontas County schools next year.
“Mine covers 1,800 square feet — it's thirty-by-sixty. Right now I have just one layer of plastic on it, but I could put in another layer and inflate the space in between — that would add like another seven degrees of insulation,” he explained. “I wanted this high tunnel to not be grid-tied — passive — so it won't require any energy to produce the food in here other than what comes from the sun.”
Condon said the water supply for his high tunnel is a rain catching system he put on an existing barn, tied into a 3,000 gallon water cistern. The entire irrigation set-up was also paid for through the cost-share program. Condon said his high tunnel kit cost about $5,000, and the entire process was pretty easy.
“So I took out a loan, bought all the materials that were pre-approved by the USDA, then I installed it. Then the USDA came out and wrote me a check for the amount we agreed on before we signed the contract. Labor is factored in to what they reimburse you, so I was really paid to build this.”
For Condon, the construction process took about three months, and he had some help.
“When I was putting up all the bows, I had a couple friends come out and we did them all in one day,” he said. “The purlins took one day. Then all these cross braces I put in as I had time in the evenings over the course of a couple of weeks. I worked on it as I had time and when the weather was good.”
Condon said the folks at the USDA office were very helpful.
“They were flexible,” he said. “They even let me change the size of the high tunnel and the size of the water tank that I wanted after getting into the program and signing the contract.”
Condon said he hasn't had any problems with his high tunnel, and it's weathered the recent snow storms without any issues.
“It sheds snow pretty well,” explained Condon. “For this climate you definitely want to get the gothic style, which has the peak.”
Condon said he's pleased with how everything turned out.
“This is a really beneficial program for anyone who is interested in putting up a high tunnel,” he said. “EQIP funds all sorts of things — mobile fencing, ponds, putting in trees. Any farmer that wants to expand their operation, or get into season extension should call NRCS and see what kind of programs they have available. There's something for everyone. If it hadn't been for this program I wouldn't have this high tunnel — I wouldn't have been able to do it otherwise.”
Anyone interested in the seasonal high tunnel program can contact the Buckeye USDA office at 304-799-4317.