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MOF&G Cover Summer 2011

  

  You are here:  PublicationsMaine Organic Farmer & GardenerSummer 2011Maine's Hoophouses   
 Maine's Hoophouse Movement Expanding Minimize

Hoophouses at Peacemeal Farm
Hoophouses at Peacemeal Farm in Dixmont, Maine, and at MOFGA's Common Ground Education Center in Unity. English photos.
MOFGA Hoophouse

A Tribute to Farmers' Innovative Instincts

Tentative deadline for final year of NRCS funding: July 1, 2011

By Jo Anne Bander

As crocuses and wild spring greens emerged in Maine, so did crops in an increasing number of ballooning structures: hoophouses. These structures that extend the growing season and even allow four-season farming are an increasingly important component of farm infrastructure.

Hoophouse farming in Maine has been evolving since the late 1970s as visionaries and practitioners such as Eliot Coleman of Four Season Farm in Harborside developed low-tech methods to promote a longer vegetable growing season without supplemental heat or complex and expensive solar systems. The term "hoophouse" is often used interchangeably with greenhouse, high tunnel and low tunnel/caterpillar. (See "Soil Management in High Tunnels" in this MOF&G.) The selection of crops grown in these structures depends on the farmer's cropping system, the structure, and whether or not the structure is heated.

Eric Sideman, MOFGA's organic crops specialist, traces the Maine hoophouse movement back at least 10 years and observes that today approximately 50 percent of Maine farms have hoophouses, and that even one large hoophouse, based on comments from farmers, can increase production in a small amount of space enough to increase gross income some $10,000 per season. (For more income figures, see "Building a Profitable Small Farm through Record Keeping, Season Extension and Winter Growing" in the March-May 2011 issue of The MOF&G.)

"Hoophouses let farmers who heat at least part of the hoophouse get seeds going as early as February and respond to market demand for tomatoes from June through September. They are particularly useful for early season lettuces, winter production of all types of greens, [and summer production of] colored peppers, basil, cucumbers."

Sideman sees continued growth as farms move to multiple hoophouses, recognizing that unlike many other investments, hoophouses can pay for themselves in as quickly as one year. Despite the increased number of hoophouses, he still sees only a small percentage of farmers doing winter production, as many opt for a break and because of the cost of operating a winter house.

USDA NRCS Financing

The USDA's three-year Seasonal High Tunnel pilot program, part of the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, launched in late 2009 to make farming more accessible, sustainable and affordable. Administered by USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), 19 contracts from almost every county in Maine were signed in 2010 for a total of $172,320 to establish high tunnels "to increase the availability of locally-grown produce in a conservation-friendly way." The program offered up to $3.75 per square foot for a high tunnel of up to 2,178 square feet but prohibited using any heating and powered ventilation elements.

As we went to press, the deadline for applying for the final (2012) year of funding was tentatively slated to be July 1, 2011. Local NRCS offices can offer updates on the deadline.

The NRCS focus in the pilot is to test "the potential conservation benefits of growing crops under these structures." According to Christopher R. Jones, the NRCS state resource conservationist responsible for conservation planning and practices, "seasonal high tunnels are an example of an interim conservation practice which we are testing to see if it should be a regular conservation practice. As part of this effort, we are asking the clients to keep records about the crops they raise, how long their season was, what their inputs were and how effective high tunnels are in reducing pesticide use, keeping vital nutrients in the soil, extending the growing season, increasing yields and providing other benefits to growers. The clients will be collecting this data for the next three years and we hope we'll get good information as a result."

Checkerberry's New Hoophouse

Jason and Barbara Kafka of Checkerberry Farm in Parkman (Piscataquis County) received one of the FY 2010 contracts to add a hoophouse to their diversified organic farm. Heated houses made sense to them over 10 years ago, and by 2010 they had five, finding them "high priced real estate but generating a good return in relation to the [added] nutrients." Their hoophouse inventory includes an oil-furnace-heated, 26- by 48-foot, double plastic walled structure with mechanical systems for propagation. The 70-degree temperature inside this house on a mid-March day was incubating 3 acres worth of onion starts that were seeded in mid-February: 2 acres worth for Checkerberry and 1 for wholesale to other farmers.

Because they didn't have a high tunnel, the Kafkas applied for and received a contract to buy a Gothic arch 30- by 96-foot structure from Ledgewood Farm in Moultonborough, New Hampshire. It met NRCS standards for the grant program: a polyethylene-covered structure at least 6 feet in height, commercially produced and installed following manufacturer's directions.

To meet the time frames of the grant, Jason stretched to get the high tunnel up in May 2010, when he'd normally be planting, losing as a result some production of green bell peppers and beefsteak tomatoes. His first crops in the hoophouse were tomatoes and green peppers, followed by winter rye, planted to hold soil nutrients, and tilled under before the 2011 planting.

An organic wholesaler, Checkerberry sells vegetable starts to other farms for late April delivery; vegetables to Whole Foods and other select vendors; and seedlings for Fedco's late spring tree sale. Broccoli is its biggest Whole Foods crop - with 11 plantings of 3,000 heads during the season from two acres - but the Kafkas also start chard, parsley and kale in greenhouses. Their most profitable plant is parsley, which Jason cuts and bunches all season from one planting.

Checkerberry grows heat-loving plants such as eggplant and cucumbers in tunnels; and all the farm's tomatoes grow in hoophouses. Crops rotate through the houses, with tomatoes one year and zinnias another, for example, playing "a shell game with insects," says Jason.

He likes his new high tunnel because it is bigger and less complicated than his previous structures. It cost $12,000, with the NRCS grant contributing $8,000 of that. He is considering ordering another.

A High Tunnel Now Making Sense

Seth Kroeck and Maura Bannon lease 65 acres for their certified organic Crystal Spring Community Farm in Brunswick from the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust. They are making their first venture into hoophouse farming with a Haygrove three-season, 28- by 200-foot house, purchased from Haygrove USA in Mount Joy, Penn., and selected to meet NRCS grant requirements and to give maximum coverage for the funds provided. The hoophouse cover will be removed for the winter.

Crystal Springs has had a heated greenhouse for seedling production since 2004 - a house that tolerates snow loads. By late winter it is filled with flats of seeds - transplants for the farm, which supplies a 250-share seasonal CSA and seasonal Saturday market at the farm. Kroeck and Bannon had not originally been looking for season extension, but with the increase in local producers, many with early and late product, the grant program provided an opportunity to extend their production cycle to be more competitive.

To prepare for their hoophouse, they pastured pigs on the pastureland for three months before preparing the site and assembling their Haygrove in August 2010. They covered the house in late March 2011 and set transplants into soil amended with compost, soybean and fish meal. They aren't adding new crops to their farm mix but are choosing different varieties and planting densities recommended for high tunnels.

They hope to gain several weeks on early crops such as spinach and chard and to add a couple of weeks in late October by growing their late vegetables in the hoophouse. Their CSA members will benefit from the longer season - but without added charge this year, as Crystal Springs attempts to be of more value and maintain its base.

Kroeck believes that "having many farmers studying the use of the tunnel for a few years can be great since each farm is different, even ones next to each other, and farming attracts people who like to experiment - a process of exploring a problem again and again, so hard scientists and artists become farmers." He believes that the "more good producers there are who can provide a good product over an extended time, the better chance there is to get people out of the grocery store and build the local food economy."

Two Locations, Two Microclimates

Reba Richardson and her husband, Bill Pluecker, started their certified organic Hatchet Cove Farm in Warren in 2007. They now teach farming and leadership skills with their apprenticeship and volunteer programs.

Hoophouse farming has been integral to their farm development from the beginning. They placed their first hoophouse on Reba's parent's Friendship land in 2005. They added a second one when they purchased 26 acres for Hatchet Cove in 2007 from Lee Humphries and lb Barfod, who let them start farming before purchasing and who placed the 26 tillable acres into a conservation easement with the Georges River Land Trust.

Both hoophouses, covered year-round, are from Ledgewood Farm, selected because Ledgewood's Gothic Arch style house with short straight walls is "well designed and constructed, the right price and from a fellow farmer." Their double-plastic-layered, 30- by 96-foot hoophouse in Friendship and their single-layered, 30- by 144-foot house in Warren provide adequate coverage and two micro-climates. Greens grow longer into fall and into the cooler summer in Friendship.

While neither hoophouse is heated throughout, a section of about 30 by 30 feet is walled off and heated in their Warren house to start seedlings, a process they began in mid-March this year at a cost of $500 per week for propane in the early weeks with cloudy skies and cold winds. The cost went down to $350 every other week as days lengthened and warmed. They have harvested overwintered spinach into February. This year they planted in early March and expected their first harvest in April - of spinach, mustard greens, arugula and a spring mix. The early greens are wholesaled primarily to Rising Tide Coop in Damariscotta and Good Tern Natural Foods in Rockland, while their CSA starts in mid-June. Early CSA members who are willing to pay by electronic check have the added incentive of free bags of early greens. Hatchet Cove uses Farmigo, www.farmigo.com, for its online CSA sign-up and management system, which includes the option of electronic transfers from a member's checking account to their account.

Richardson and Pluecker grow all their tomatoes in hoophouses. They added a caterpillar in 2010 to provide more covered rows. They built this inexpensive, 7-foot-high by 12-foot-wide by 100-foot-long, three-season structure themselves from fence posts using a pipe bender from Johnny's Selected Seeds. The low, plastic-covered house enabled longer production of salad greens and cucumbers in fall, and earlier production of summer squash They expect to add another caterpillar this summer for peppers.

Despite their commitment to hoophouse farming, they have not applied for NRCS funding, because "we already had the two larger hoophouses, and we expect to use caterpillars in our future hoophouse expansion. Even without a grant, it still makes good business sense for us to invest in the hoophouses." They have applied under NRCS's Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) for funding to create a compost pad.

Besides tinkering with their structures, they are constantly changing their product mix and striving to be more affordable. Two years ago they started encouraging CSA members to use SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits with EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) cards and hope this season to have more. Their cash cow is their mesclun mix, a major reason for the greenhouses. They wholesale about half their product to specialty markets and distribute the rest to their 160 CSA members.

Hatchet Cove added a mushroom CSA from Oyster Creek and a cheese CSA from Appleton Creamery last season and this year is offering a bread CSA from Enchanted Kitchen and chicken and egg CSA from Terra Optima. For Richardson, farming is about building community and "connecting our members to other small producers around us." These feelings are reciprocal: When a February 2010 windstorm damaged the farm and hoophouses, CSA members helped rebuild.

Looking Forward

The NRCS three-year high tunnel initiative is another strategy to build Maine's farm economy in an environmentally friendly way. According to Jones, "plastic and metal pipes make it less expensive and easier to build but are simply the latest iteration of techniques to extend the growing season and protect crops." Data so far are preliminary, but "some clients have reported that they have added 40 days to their tomato growing season, and another reported adding a month to six weeks to the growing season," said Jones.

Success for Jones will be "farmers understanding the pros and cons of high tunnels with localized information, and making informed decisions about whether or not to use high tunnels. Besides season extension, the collected data might also show that protecting crops from excess water produces higher quality vegetables and results in the use of less fungicides and pesticides." The FY2011 program is more than double FY2010, with $421,500 coming from EQIP and with 51 high tunnel applications selected for funding. Meanwhile, Maine farmers continue to experiment to get the right mix of vegetables, varieties and cultural practices for growing in hoophouses - to benefit their own bottom line, their customers and the "eat local" movement.

For current information about NRCS programs visit www.me.nrcs.usda.gov.

About the author: Jo Anne Bander lives and writes in Spruce Head, Maine, and Miami, Florida, and is deeply involved in the sustainable food movement in both states.

    

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