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High tunnels becoming increasingly popular throughout area

By JONATHAN CRIBBS
Associate Editor

(May 16, 2017) Produce growers are increasingly turning to high tunnels to extend their growing seasons, shield crops from unpredictable weather and improve plant health, farmers and experts said last week.
The main driver, they say is the local food movement.
“In New Jersey, people are drifting away from traditional agriculture and going more toward specialty crops, which is where the high tunnel comes into play,” said Gail Bartok, assistant state conservationist at the state’s USDA-NRCS.
Normally, she said, her office receives less than 10 applications for cost-share assistance with high tunnel projects in a year.
This year, the office has received between 20 and 30, an increase likely reflected across the region, she said.
The state recently boosted its cap on high tunnel assistance — through which the NRCS pays up to 25 percent of the cost — from 0.05 acres to 0.1 acres.
An increase in federal assistance, including money from the 2014 Farm Bill, has made it more possible for farmers to take advantage of high tunnel production. About 20 to 30 percent of the University of Delaware’s production is done within high tunnels, said Mike Popovich, farm manager.
“We’re doing all-year-long production now, and I think that’s what growers are looking at,” he said.
The university’s produce production feeds a direct retail program, including about a dozen local restaurants looking for products, such as tomatoes, earlier in the season, he said. In addition to tomatoes, the university grows cucumbers, beets, carrots, arugula and cherry tomatoes under high tunnels.
By extending the growing season, farmers can also get a better return and fill a growing void for off-season local food.
There are more farmers markets, CSAs and restaurants demanding locally produced food over the last decade as well, said Judson Reid, an Extension vegetable specialist at Cornell University in New York.
Nationally, the number of farmers using high tunnels has grown enormously over the last several years, he said. Large buyers such as supermarkets have also come to expect the benefits of high-tunnel production.
“If they want to be competitive, they have to offer that product for as many months as possible,” he said.
Plant health is also improved, Popovich said. Crops are less likely to develop diseases in the dryness of high tunnels, though they become more vulnerable to common greenhouse pests such as white flies and sprayer mites that enjoy drier environments, he said.
But two diseases — powdery mildew and brown leaf mold — are going to be more of a concern inside high tunnels, Reid said.
“The farmer has to go into this knowing the challenges are there,” he said. “You have to be prepared to exercise some management.”
That includes selecting the right disease-resistant varieties from seed catalogs and keeping up to date with university variety trials, he said.
There’s also the weather, Popovich said. This month it’s been particularly unpredictable.
“It’s May 9, and we just had a 38-degree night,” he said. “I would call this an extreme weather event we’re having now. Without the high tunnel, if I’m in the field, I’m done.”
All of those issues have helped boost high tunnel construction on farms across the region, said Mike Brewer, a regional sales representative at Haygrove, a high tunnel producer in Mount Joy, Pa.
“Over the last 10 years, it’s grown quite a bit,” he said. “People are starting to realize they need to start growing under a protected environment.”