DOBSON — North Carolina Extension Service Agent Joanna Radford is hoping the success of Pilot Mountain Pride will fuel local produce farmers into reaching into their toolboxes and using an old strategy to solve a new problem.
“The old term for this approach to extend your growing season is hoop houses. The fancier contemporary phrase is high tunnel or tunnel farming,” said Radford. “It’s a proven method of protecting your crops from weather and temperature extremes.”
Improvements in plastics, for instance, have just allowed produce farmers to take hoop houses to another level.
“They’ve taken it one step further,” explained Radford. “Sometimes you can grow items all year round with tunnel farming.” She added that Surry Community College has a high tunnel plot. Sizes for tunnel farms range from one row to an entire field.
Radford explained that typically, a high tunnel will be constructed with a white plastic cover and black plastic as a mulch around the plants. The tunnels are movable and easily lend themselves to proven strategies such as planting cover crops to improve the soil.
“We have huge potential here with our climate that could benefit us with an extended season,” said Radford. “We don’t normally think of tasty tomatoes in the fall, but the season could be extended to provide just that.” She said that many produce farmers can only get one planting in a season. The tunnels also shade plants and this could open up possibilities for different types of produce to be grown locally without worrying about sun scald.
Radford said that some farmers use tunnels that are as large as greenhouses, some are large enough to drive a regular size tractor under. She said locally she knows of only one farmer who is considering using high tunnels by this fall.
“A longer growing season means more produce and fresher product for the consumer. The prices could also be better so it’s a winning situation for everyone,” said Radford. Other than the tunnel structure itself, no different equipment is required of farmers. Crops would have to be irrigated with some form of drip feeders and more growing time means crop rotation will maximize product from the field.
High tunnels typically have no fans, only roll up windows. Radford said that increased attention to soil borne diseases is required because of the closed environment in the tunnels. She also said no grading is required for a high tunnel. Tunnel farming also keeps the elements off those who must tend the crops. Radford some high tunnel farmers have noted a 40-degree temperature difference inside a properly built tunnel.
“A tasty local tomato in the fall is a wonderful thing,” commented Radford. “If we can alter the temperature anywhere from 10 to 20 degrees with these tunnels, I am confident even more great produce can be grown locally.”
Reach David Broyles at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1952.