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Published July 23, 2012, 10:17 AM

Tunneling out a role

Use of high tunnels is growing in the Upper Midwest

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

BOTTINEAU, N.D. — When Holly Mawby became director of the Entrepreneurial Center for Horticulture here five years ago, high tunnels were scarce in North Dakota.

“I could count the number of producers (using high tunnels) on one hand,” she says. “Now they’re all over, and I keep running into more.”

The structures continue to pop up across the Northern Plains, despite half a decade of strong prices for wheat, corn and other mainstream field crops.

While nobody thinks tomatoes and cucumbers will ever rival wheat and corn on the Northern Plains, high tunnel-grown veggies and fruits are playing a greater role in the region’s production agriculture, particularly in Minnesota.

High tunnels — low-cost, plastic-covered buildings — allow producers to extend their growing season in both spring and fall. That’s especially useful on the Northern Plains, given the region’s relatively short growing season.

By extending the growing season, “You’re also able to extend the selling season (for locally grown food) and increase the amount you sell,” says Terry Nennich, an extension educator at the University of Minnesota-Crookston who first learned of high tunnels in 1999.

Advocates say high tunnels can pay for themselves in as little as two years, and add that farmers markets, grocery stores, restaurants and school districts buy vegetables grown in the structures. They also maintain that the rising popularity of community-supported agriculture, or groups and organizations that promote the use of locally grown food, increases the popularity of the practice.

Westward ho

By all accounts, Minnesota is well ahead of North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana in the development of high tunnels.

Minnesota has been promoting their development for a decade and today has about 800 operations, Nennich estimates. Many are still new, while others have been around for years.

North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana were slower to promote the high tunnels, apparently, at least in part because Minnesota has more people and more potential customers to buy produce grown in them.

Still, interest is spreading to North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana.

“It’s moving west,” says Bruce Smith, Dawson County agent with the Montana State University Extension Service in Glendive, who promotes high tunnels in his state.

Montana has an estimated 16 high tunnel operations, he says, adding that plenty of farmers new to the strategy are experimenting with it.

Having fewer urban centers and established farmers markets has slowed development of high tunnels in Montana, Smith says, though he remains optimistic about their future in the state.

South Dakota has about 50 operations, estimates Rhoda Burrows, a South Dakota Extension horticulture specialist based in Rapid City. She’s worked for the past few years to encourage South Dakotans to use high tunnels. North Dakota has about 90 to 100, Mawby estimates.

Some of the operators use conventional agricultural practices, while others do not.

Five years ago, most North Dakotans interested in high tunnels were members of a farm family looking to supplement their regular farm income, she says.

Today, because of the higher price for wheat, corn and other field crops, most of the new interest in high tunnels comes from people who have moved recently to rural areas, she says. New interest also is coming from people who once farmed around 1,000 acres, but now have decided to farm in a different way.

Some older farmers who have turned over their farms to the next generation are interested in high tunnels, too.

Economic drivers

Advocates say there’s good reason to think that use of high tunnels will continue to expand in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and northwestern Minnesota, despite those areas’ relatively sparse populations. Many rural areas have lost their restaurants and grocery stories in recent years, creating more demand for produce, Mawby says.

Also, many of the people who remain in those rural areas don’t garden themselves, which also increases demand for vegetables grown in high tunnels, Mawby says.

A 2010 study by the University of Minnesota Extension found as much as $430,000 annually could be pumped into the economy of five central Minnesota counties — Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison, Todd and Wadena — if schools in those counties bought food from local farmers.

The research focused on a number of products, including apples and cabbage, that are available from local farmers and easily added to school menus.

Locally grown produce is often thought of as more expensive, but Mawby says her research indicates that’s usually not the case. “And if you are paying more, it’s for the quality (of locally grown food).”

Another economic factor favoring high tunnels is technical and financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

NRCS’s Environmental Quality Impact Program helps producers who, by building a high tunnel, address concerns such as soil quality or energy use. The structures are known for their efficient use of water.

“I’m not sure the public realizes how much environmental benefit is associated with high tunnels,” Nennich says.

For more information on EQIP, contact a state or local NRCS office, or go to the NRCS website: www.nrcs.usda.gov.

A closer look

High tunnels are prefabricated metal structures covered with high-quality plastic. They typically have no electricity, relying on solar power for heat, passive ventilation for air cooling and exchange, and an irrigation system for water.

In contrast, so-called “low tunnels” are only a few feet high and provide temporary, early protection for plants. Although it causes confusion, both low tunnels and high tunnels sometimes are referred to as “hoop houses.” In this part of the world, however, high tunnel is the accepted term.

Depending on their size, the structures cost roughly $2,000 to $15,000. A 30-foot by 60-foot, well-built high tunnel costs about $3,000, Mawby says.

Plants are grown directly in the soil, not in pots as is typical of greenhouses.

Tomatoes and cucumbers are the most common vegetables to grow inside them, but a wide range of other veggies are grown, too.

High tunnels also hold promise for their ability to raise berries that otherwise couldn’t be grown in this area, Nennich says.

Bottineau center’s history

The Entrepreneurial Center for Horticulture on the campus of Dakota College in Bottineau opened in 2007 to help small- to mid-size farmers and gardeners produce organic and specialty vegetables for sale.

Last year, the Bottineau center built seven demonstration high tunnels, giving it a total of eight. The center plans to add a washing and packing facility later this year.

Planning for the center began in 2003. North Dakota’s congressional delegation at the time was asking colleges and universities in the state to look at how the institutions could help fill gaps in their local economies.

Dakota College held a series of meetings, initially leading to the idea of raising flowers commercially. That idea, in turn, led to a feasibility study, which found that raising vegetables commercially was a better option.

“It became really clear that there was going to be a need for some education and for a center to help producers,” Mawby says.

The Bottineau center began with a federal economic development grant and later became a North Dakota State Center for Excellence. North Dakota’s state government’s Center for Excellence program invests in infrastructure and research capacity at the state’s colleges and universities.

Another federal grant helped build the demonstration high tunnels and will provide funding for the planned washing and packing facility.

The center, which has an annual operating budget of $250,000, has four people on staff: an administrative assistant, a farm manager, a member of the Dakota College faculty who provides business expertise and Mawby, a Minot, N.D., native.

A high tunnel operator herself, Mawby had a background in horticulture and greenhouses before joining the Bottineau center, which now provides help in areas ranging from food safety to business planning, as well as dealing with North Dakota’s frequent heavy winds. It works with people in and outside of North Dakota.

Branching out agriculturally

Tracie Thompson, of Antler, N.D., is among the producers who have worked with the Bottineau center.

She is married to a farmer who raises wheat, sunflowers and other mainstream field crops.

But Thompson has a small farm of her own just 10 miles from the Canadian border. For seven years, she’s raised vegetables outdoors. Last year, she also grew them in a newly built high tunnel.

“I started out doing this to raise food for my family,” she says, adding that that includes four children.

Later, she expanded into production for commercial sales. She sells to farmers markets and three grocery stores, as well as wholesale.

The high tunnel allowed her to extend her growing season by 16 weeks, starting eight weeks earlier and finishing eight weeks later.

She paid off the structure after just one growing season. She stresses, however, that sales of vegetables grown in the high tunnel benefitted from marketing connections she’d made earlier. She cautions those interested in high tunnel farming to do research first.

She and other advocates also say the strategy requires a commitment of time and labor not everyone is willing or able to make. Temperatures must be monitored carefully and water must be applied when needed.

Still, high tunnels are a great opportunity for many people, Nennich says.

“High tunnels take a lot of work, but they can bring a lot of rewards, too,” he says.

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