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3-Year Project to Verify Effectiveness of High Tunnels in Natural Resource Conservation

WASHINGTON, DC. Dec. 16, 2009 — Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan today announced a new pilot project under the 'Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food' initiative for farmers to establish high tunnels - also known as hoop houses - to increase the availability of locally grown produce in a conservation-friendly way. Merrigan and other Obama administration officials highlighted opportunities available for producers in a video posted on USDA's YouTube channel, which shows high tunnels recently installed in the White House garden.

"There is great potential for high tunnels to expand the availability of healthy, locally-grown crops — a win for producers and consumers," said Merrigan. "This pilot project is going to give us real-world information that farmers all over the country can use to decide if they want to add high tunnels to their operations. We know that these fixtures can help producers extend their growing season and hopefully add to their bottom line."

The 3-year, 38-state study will verify if high tunnels are effective in reducing pesticide use, keeping vital nutrients in the soil, extending the growing season, increasing yields, and providing other benefits to growers.

Made of ribs of plastic or metal pipe covered with a layer of plastic sheeting, high tunnels are easy to build, maintain and move. High tunnels are used year-round in parts of the country, providing steady incomes to farmers - a significant advantage to owners of small farms, limited-resource farmers and organic producers.

USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will provide financial assistance for the project through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the EQIP Organic Initiative, and the Agricultural Management Assistance program. NRCS will fund one high tunnel per farm. High tunnels in the study can cover as much as 5 percent of 1 acre. Participating states and territories are Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Pacific Islands, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

To sign up or learn more about EQIP assistance for high tunnel projects, contact a local NRCS office.

USDA is an equal opportunity provider, employer, and lender. To file a complaint of discrimination, write: USDA, Director, Office of Civil Rights, 1400 Independence Ave SW, Washington, DC 20250-9410; or, call (800) 795-3272(voice) or (202) 720-6382 (TDD).

NRCS High Tunnel Program Update | February 10, 2010

Details about the NRCS hoophouse program have become available through the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). Here are the answers to the most commonly asked questions.

Is my state participating?

States had until Jan. 29 to sign up to participate in the three-year pilot program. As of the deadline, 39 states and the Pacific Islands had chosen to participate. The states that did not sign up to participate include Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, New Jersey, Oregon, and Texas. In Utah, the program is limited to growers in the Great Salt Lake Resource Conservation and Development area and Utah Tribal Lands.

How big does the hoophouse/high tunnel have to be?

NRCS clearly states that the tunnel must be at least 6 feet tall at its highest point. No low tunnels will be funded. Length of the tunnel is not specified.

Are heated greenhouses eligible?

No, NRCS says the tunnel must be used only to grow crops in the ground and must be unheated. In response to questions from growers, NRCS has stated that electric heat and ventilation are not allowed, even if the electricity is from solar, wind, or other renewable source, and even if the farmer pays for it.

Can the high tunnel be used in winter?

NRCS originally said the tunnel cover would have to be removed in winter, but has now clarified that the cover may remain on if it can withstand wind and snow loads. "However, if wind or snow loads damage the structure, then the producer would be expected to restore the functionality," NRCS said.

When is the deadline to sign up?

The money for the high tunnel cost-share comes from the EQIP program, which has a continuous sign-up process, although the first round of applications are currently being ranked and contracts awarded. Some states have extended the deadlines and may have additional funds later in the year. Some states also are using the EQIP Organic Initiative program, which has an enrollment deadline of March 12. Because there are so many variables, you are urged to contact your state NRCS office to inquire about cut-off dates.

For more information:

Read the full NSAC article.
Read the NRCS conservation practice standard "Seasonal High Tunnel System for Crops."
Growing for Market has a list of additional resources on growing in high tunnels.

Article by Lynn Byczynski
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