Things are looking up in the small farm crop industry.  Farmers who are embracing new ideas in farming technology are finding they can increase crop production, extend growing seasons, and generate extra income.  A new farming trend uses seasonal high tunnels, sometimes called hoop houses, to help farmers grow locally grown, fresh food to sell in their communities.

These high tunnels look similar to greenhouses and are at least six feet in height, which modifies the climate inside to create more favorable growing conditions for vegetables and other specialty crops.  Made of ribs of plastic or metal pipes covered with a layer of plastic sheeting, high tunnels are easy to build, maintain and move.

The USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) recognized the value of these structures and in 2010 delivered a three-year pilot program for seasonal high tunnels offered under the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative for farmers and producers.  The project is funded through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the EQIP Organic Initiative, and the Agricultural Management Assistance Program.

Several north-central Texas producers learned about the program from NRCS field offices and workshops.  They took advantage of the program and are using technical assistance from NRCS to find more diverse and creative ways to use the high tunnel technology.

“The seasonal high tunnels are getting a lot of notice in north-central Texas due to the extended growing season and better crop production,” said Todnechia Mitchell, NRCS district conservationist in Milam County, Texas. 

Pilot Program

The NRCS pilot program will determine the high tunnel’s effectiveness in conserving water quality, reducing pesticide use, maintaining valuable soil nutrients, and better crop yields for producers.

In Milam County, one organic producer is using aquaponics in his seasonal high tunnel structure.  This practice combines a traditional aquaculture such as raising fish or other aquatic animals, and hydroponics that cultivates plants in water.  This unique farming method offers advantages such as conservation through constant water reuse resulting in cleaner water for plant production, thanks to the fish contributing nutrients to the water and plants filtering nutrients out of the water.

“High tunnels increased my crop yield and better water quality from the start,” said Ben Godfrey, organic farmer and owner of Sand Creek Farm and Dairy in Cameron, Texas. 

Moreover, on the 169-acre Sand Creek Farm and Dairy, Godfrey said crop yields, including cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and strawberries, resulted in the highest margin for extra income using high tunnels. 

“The biggest significant changes in using the high tunnels include better crop yield and the higher probability of a guaranteed sold product,” Godfrey said.  

“One of the benefits is less water usage for sure, no chemicals or pesticides, and no fertilizers.  So environmentally, it’s the cleanest production we have on our farm and that includes the higher water quality,” he said. 

Godfrey said food quality is better and he can get more market share due to the crops being protected in a controlled environment.  He has expanded his business into the Austin market and a few surrounding counties near his organic operation in Cameron. 

Up in the Dallas marketplace, Barking Cat Farms has a 20-acre organic farm in Hunt County near Rockwall, along with a Texas licensed nursery totaling 4,000 square-feet in Dallas.  Since 2004, organic farm and nursery owners Laurie Bostic and Kim Martin have grown over 200 varieties of vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers for retail and wholesale customers.  

These two producers use organic, intensive, minimum-till methods while utilizing rollers on a steel rail system to maximize high tunnel capabilities.  Using the rail system to position the high tunnel where they need it gives them the workload capability of more than one high tunnel while obtaining higher crop yields for better sales of their locally grown products. 

“We are making a quantum leap forward using high tunnel technology, and (can increase) production,” said Bostic. 

“We read about the rolling rail system technology with high tunnels, so we wanted to apply that on our farm,” she said.  “We had heard that the NRCS high tunnel program would be coming to Texas, and as soon as it did we applied through the NRCS Greenville office and were accepted.” 

Local production

The farm does not go outside of an average 35-mile radius for its retail and wholesale customers, and it never ships products, so locally grown, fresh food is very important to the farm’s success.  Their customer base includes fine Dallas restaurants, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) members, and retail florists in Dallas and Rockwall.

Martin said the organic farm is already diversified in multiple markets and crop production, such as flowers, herbs and vegetables; some fruits are always needed by the public.

“The extended growing season will give us the opportunity for early production of our sweet and hot peppers, along with fine greens for our Dallas retail restaurant market,” said Martin.  “There is far more demand than organic producers in North Texas for good locally grown food, so in terms of meeting demand, the high tunnels will help quite a bit.”

According to Martin, one of the problems the high tunnels will help control on their farm is pest management, which has been a problem from white-tailed deer, grasshoppers and caterpillars.

“There is a high probability we can exclude larger deer from damaging our specialty crops while having better pest management using the high tunnels, but we cannot eliminate all pests such as grasshoppers and caterpillars even though it can be controlled better than in an outdoor environment,” Martin said.

Bostic and Martin agree that their relationship with NRCS prior to getting into the high tunnel program was excellent, and the technical assistance they received over the years made the difference in using the new technology offered from the pilot program.

“We are very pleased with the partnership using NRCS conservation programs on our organic farm, and the results for our locally grown products,” said Bostic.

These producers have taken an opportunity through NRCS farm bill programs, added their own creativity and took small farm production to a whole new level using high tunnel technology.