USDA high tunnel program expands

It smells of wet soil, tender green plants, chickens and several other layers of agricultural production inside Abby Ala’s polyculture building at Ridgeway Farms in Kenai.


On a recent Saturday, Ala stood among rows of tables on the lower floor of the building — muted sunlight streaming through the semi-translucent plastic that covers the side of the building — her fingers expertly scraping around the edges of each tiny growing container as she transplants some of her budding crops into larger containers.

Within the month, Ala will move a majority of her plants into two large high tunnels that sit near the center of her farm. The two structures rely on solar radiation to keep plants, soil warm and temperatures more consistent than what is generally experienced on the Kenai Peninsula in April.

Ala and some 70 other growers in an area stretching from just south of Clam Gulch to Seward, use high-tunnels that were at least partially paid for by a program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS. The seasonal high tunnel program — which has been drastically expanded in 2014 — allows growers to start planting earlier. At least 25 new applicants have applied to take part in the program in 2014 according to NRCS data.

The jump-start on the planting season is vital to keeping Ala’s farm’s production capacity at a level that can generate enough money to keep the business afloat — especially during the winter months.

Soon, Ala plans to expand the number of high-tunnel structures on her property to include shorter, longer high tunnels that cover some of the outdoor rows she plants every year.

“(They) say I want to have everything covered in plastic,” she said with a laugh as she talked about what her husband and son thought of her plans to expand. “Maybe I’ll cover the entire farm.”

The draw of expanded production is part of the reason Liz Lynch, of Nikiski, applied to get reimbursed for putting a high tunnel on her property three years ago. Another reason for Lynch was comfort.

“I love gardening,” she said. “It’s always cold outside so I wanted to be inside a greenhouse. To be able to go out there in April and it’s 80 degrees and it’s beautiful in there, just lifts the spirits. I also have flowers in there that bloom to bring in the pollinators. So in spring the flowers are growing and it’s like my little oasis in there, Shangri-La.”

Lynch said she has been gardening for about 20 years and uses her high tunnel to grow things she cannot grow outside.

“Outside we just have a normal garden with potatoes and carrots and things,” she said. “Inside we’ve got blackberries, corn ... melons. I’ve got cantaloupes and Asian melons.”

Lynch said her growing season starts in April and stretches well into November.

When Lynch lists off the crops she grows, it’s like walking down a packed aisle in a grocery store. “The tomatoes are growing, the broccoli and the cabbage and the kale and brussels sprouts,” she said.

Primarily, she shares the bounty with her family and church, thought sometimes supply far outweighs demand.

The second year Lynch started growing, she generated more than a ton of food.

“There’s no way one family could eat that much,” she said. “I keep cutting down the number of things I have of each variety and I still produce more. People at church kind of look the other way now when I show up with my bags of produce to give away to everyone.”

Lynch, like many others in the area, said she heard about the program through word of mouth.

The process of ordering the high tunnel through a manufacturer, one of the requirements of the program, and getting it set up was fairly easy, Lynch said.

“We got it in April and had it planted by the end of May,” she said.

Still, despite the boon in crop production and being able to grow fresh berries every year, Lynch said she probably would not have built a high tunnel had it not been reimbursable.

“It’s too much money just on an experiment to see if it would work,” she said.

The high tunnel Lynch built ended up being completely reimbursed through the NRCS program.

“I want to say it was like $8,500,” she said. “We had to shop around and work with other people to combine the shipping of getting them up here and stuff, we really tried to cut the cost.”

In 2014 the basic rate for reimbursement on a high tunnel was $5.74 per square foot, according to USDA data. Populations that are considered “historically underserved,” including low-income people and veterans, are reimbursed at $6.89 per square foot.

The cost of a high-tunnel can vary depending on the quality of materials used, shipping and the cost of labor to build the structure, said Meg Mueller, an NRCS district conservationist in Kenai.

The high tunnel program is one of several offered through the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives program which provides monetary and technical assistance to growers to help improve their water, air and soil quality.

“From a resource conservation agency perspective — it’s intended to extend the growing season, improve the health and vigor of the crops and ideally people manage to a higher level under the high tunnel,” Mueller said. ”They’re more conscientious about the water and nutrients that they apply. You would conceivably get less erosion under that covered area, so those are sort of the benefits we see.” Pam Voeller, NRCS soil conservationist agreed with Mueller.

“I think here in this cooler soil area, there maybe be a benefit too of soil building because if you’re outdoors and the soil remains cold, it takes longer for organic material to break down and start rebuilding that portion of your soil,” Voeller said. “I think in the high tunnels, that might be an advantage for improving your growing soil.”

The newly expanded high tunnel eliminates the requirement that just one high tunnel per farm can be reimbursed, it also eliminates the maximum square footage requirement which was about 5 percent of an acre, Mueller said.

“You could have as many high tunnel structures covering as much square footage as you have in production if you wanted,” Mueller said.

There are still requirements to qualify for reimbursement including producer eligibility and land eligibility.

The land to be covered by the high tunnel must already be in production.

“They have to be gardening to the extent that they would like to build the high tunnel,” Mueller said. “So, like Ridgeway wouldn’t have any problem, they’ve got gardening production and hay production.”

The other requirement is producer eligibility. Last year, growers had to produce $1,000 worth of food or fiber product, either for personal or commercial consumption, to qualify for the program.

For those looking to expand operations or build larger high tunnels, access to water will also be a consideration.

“They’re going to need to irrigate it, so they’re going to need state water rights,” Mueller said. “They’re going to need to ensure that their water delivery system is at that kind of capacity. So, it’s going to be a little more complicated.”

Despite the restrictions, a recent meeting with the Central Peninsula Garden Club generated a considerable amount of interest.

“There was a packed house,” Voeller “I don’t know why I’m always surprised by that but there’s just a lot of interest and it’s that time of year too, everyone is thinking about gardening.”


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