It’s become apparent that it is no longer summertime. Flip-flops have been swapped for boots and tank tops with sweaters. But while most have realized that the summer days are long behind us, it would appear that some of the produce apt to growing in the summer farming months on The Farm on St. Mathias have not yet realized it.
That is because beginning this fall Arlene Jones, farm manager of the Farm on St. Mathias along with her husband Bob, has utilized the recent U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA NRCS) growing initiative to build seasonal high tunnels on the farm to help extend the growing season for fruits and vegetables.
“Season extension has been a part of the U of M (University of Minnesota) and on the NRCS’ radar for many years and the high tunnels have been a part of a farmer’s toolbox for a good long time,” said Jones, who had two 40-foot long tunnels put on the land through the NRCS grant and one 72-foot long one that she plans to push and see how long it can produce crops. “But it’s really just started taking off the last four or five years in Minnesota as a method to continue to grow.
“You can start later and grow plants longer, so why shouldn’t we get involved and try it out.”
Seasonal high tunnels are a temporary plastic supported structure that is at least six-feet high and helps modify the climate to create a more favorable growing conditions for crops. Jones said for farmers in Minnesota that can mean starting to grow crops as early as April — with a mild winter like this past year — and have farmers growing into middle October, like Jones currently is.
To further increase the use of seasonal high tunnels, the NRCS began a high tunnel initiative three years ago to help not only farmers increase production, but keep things local, too.
“NRCS looks at it as you’re growing the food locally and then you’re also distributing it locally,” said Jessica Weiss, district conservationist with the USDA NRCS. “So it’s saving energy that way and you’re keeping it in the community and the community is knowing where their food is coming from.
“That’s important to us in this initiative.”
The Farm on St. Mathias has a strong relationship with the Brainerd School District along with other area restaurants to maintain that local production.
And with the help of high tunnels, Jones said she is able to increase that production nearly fourfold.
“If you look at the data of how many pounds (of produce) equate to how many pounds (of produce) you get out in the field, it’s unbelievable,” said Jones. “Just in cucumbers alone it’s 60,000 pounds in a tunnel versus 16,000 in a field.”
Walking into Jones’ 72-footer the tomato plants were beaming with hundreds of bright, red and plump tomatoes — on Oct. 18, nearly a month after the area’s first freeze and when most farmers stop growing.
“Look at these (tomatoes) and how great they turn out,” said Jones, who said an LP tank is used to heat the tunnels when the weather drops below 25, a temperature that puts the produce and plants at a high risk. “That’s what I have been getting all season using these tunnels. Beautiful produce and the plants just don’t stop growing.”
The Farm on St. Mathias is the first in Crow Wing County to use the NRCS grant for seasonal high tunnel but Jones said she expects that number to grow.
“I would recommend doing this (seasonal high tunnel grant) to anybody,” said Jones, who said she plans to stop growing following the second freeze. “It’s crazy not too, especially in Minnesota where our weather doesn’t always allow for a great growing season, even in the summer.
“I have had perfect produce under this (seasonal high tunnel) everytime.”
Weiss agrees that with the increasing benefits of seasonal high tunnels being recognized more and more farmers are eager to join.
Weiss said the NRCS helped install 217 seasonal high tunnels in the state of Minnesota in 2011, about 10 acres of cropland. A giant leap from the 85 high tunnels — about 4.25 acres of cropland — through NRCS in Minnesota in 2010, the first year they were offered via the NRCS’ three-year initiative. And even though the numbers for 2012 are not immediately available, Weiss said it lies somewhere around nine acres of seasonal tunnel in the state of Minnesota.
“That might not sound like a lot, but when you consider the production in nine acres and that is in all tunnels, that’s a lot,” said Weiss.
And with the NRCS administering the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) helping support farmers who meet the necessary application requirements the benefits only continue.
Through the EQIP farmers can have a maximum size of 2,178 square feet of land under the high tunnel with a payment rate of $1.89 per square foot.
“I am going to absolutely apply again next year,” said Jones.
For more information on the EQIP or NRCS and how you can apply, visit www.mn.nrcs.usda.gov.