NRCS Helps Fund Seasonal High Tunnels

Author: Maud Powell, Small Farms Program, Oregon State University

Publish Date: Winter 2013

With an increasing demand for fall, winter and early spring produce, High Tunnels, defined here as in-field greenhouses or hoophouses, provide the necessary infrastructure for small farmers to take advantage of these markets.

My own farm, Wolf Gulch, is situated in the Applegate Valley on a south-facing slope several hundred feet above the fog zone. Our site is ideal for producing winter crops, as the ground rarely freezes and the slope encourages frost drainage. Five years ago, my husband and I decided to start a winter CSA program to provide some winter cash flow. Marketing for the winter CSA was easy—we filled our initial twenty-five spots within a few days. We were able to grow and store winter squash, potatoes, garlic and onions; and keep root crops and members of the brassica family, including carrots, parsnips, beets, rutabagas, turnips, kale, collards, broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower in the ground. The less hardy greens did need some protection from the elements, so we built boxes in our propagation house for the salad greens. As demand for our winter CSA increased, we realized that salad mix was our limiting factor for growth: we needed more protected space.

Last winter, we applied to take part in Oregon’s Natural Resources Conservation District (NRCS) High Tunnel initiative, which is offered through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). According to the NRCS website, “the goal of the initiative is to assist producers in extending the growing season for high value crops in an environmentally safe manner.” The program reimburses producers for purchasing and constructing High Tunnels. In order to be eligible for the Initiative, applicants must be farmers who earn a minimum agricultural income and meet other EQIP requirements. Other important requirements include the following:

  • The maximum size of the seasonal high tunnel funded by the Initiative is limited to 2178 sq. ft.
  • The practice must be sited on existing cropland that has an active crop production history.
  • The crops grown within the seasonal high tunnel must be planted directly into the soil covered by the seasonal high tunnel. The use of pots, growing racks or hydroponics is not eligible.
  • The seasonal high tunnel system must be constructed in accordance with manufacturer’s recommendations. The frame for the seasonal high tunnel must be constructed of metal, wood, or durable plastic and be at least 6 feet high at the center, structure cover at a minimum will be made of 6-mil greenhouse-grade, UV resistant polyethylene and will not include electrical, heating or ventilation system. Expected life span of the seasonal high tunnel is a minimum of 4 years.

Over the course of the spring, my husband and I worked with our local NRCS representatives to fill out the necessary paperwork and walk through a site inspection. In early October, we purchased and built our High Tunnel and immediately transplanted thousands of plants into it. As a result of the increased space, we have been able to double our winter CSA membership and will sell surplus salad mix to a local store. Within a month of construction, we had been reimbursed in full for the High Tunnel by NRCS. Other producers in Southern Oregon cite similar positive experiences. Angelika Curtis of Wild Bee Honey found the NRCS staff “super-helpful and easy to work with. We are thrilled with the program.”

During 2012, NRCS contracted 47 High Tunnels in Oregon through both the High Tunnel Initiative and Organic Initiatives. Erin Kurtz, one of Southern Oregon’s NRCS Conservationist explains the many benefits of the initiative: “seasonal high tunnels can help support a local food economy with associated natural resource benefits, including reduced transportation and energy inputs.”

The NRCS is gearing up for another round of EQIP and High Tunnel funding. If you and your farm are eligible, NRCS offers practical support for season extension and niche enterprises.

For more information on NRCS’s EQIP program or the High Tunnel Initiative, contact your local NRCS office or one of the statewide specialists below.

Todd Peplin
625 SE Salmon Avenue, Suite 4
Redmond, Oregon 97756-9580
Phone: (541) 923-4358 ext 131
Denise Troxell
1201 NE Lloyd Blvd, Suite 900
Portland, Oregon 97232
Phone: (503) 414-3232