HOMER — Two years ago when the Homer office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service joined a federal pilot program for high tunnels, District Conservationist Mark Kinney had no idea how successful the program would be. High tunnels are steel-framed, clear polyethylene-covered structures that extend the growing season by four to six weeks. Through NRCS, the U.S. Department of Agriculture partially funds building the tunnels.
In 2009 Kinney attended the annual meeting of the Homer Farmers’ Market growers and talked about the program.
“I didn’t even have to promote this thing,” Kinney said. “On Monday morning, I had nine people lined up outside my office when I walked in to go to work. It never stopped.”
Now entering the third year of the program, the Homer office, which covers the lower Kenai Peninsula from Ninilchik south, and includes Kodiak and the Aleutian Islands, has funded 153 high tunnels for the federal fiscal years — Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 — for 2010 and this year. Most of those, 122, have been for the lower peninsula.
As of the Sept. 15 deadline for the 2012 fiscal year, Kinney has received 143 new applications.
Depending on congressional funding and the Secretary of Agriculture’s approval, the program could continue into 2013.
Kinney will speak about high tunnels at the Nov. 11-12 State Farm Bureau banquet. Kinney said the Farm Bureau asked him to speak because of the high tunnels, he said.
Other conservation districts haven’t embraced the program as much as Homer. Some states haven’t shown enthusiasm. That’s Homer’s gain, with funding not used elsewhere flowing to the lower peninsula. Kinney credits the Alaska State Conservationist, Bob Jones, with backing the program.
“My attitude is, I’m going to do everything to shift the paradigm for agriculture in this area, which is what’s happening with high tunnels,” Kinney said.
At a meeting last month organized by Kyra Wagner of Sustainable Homer, the Homer High-Tunnel Growers got together to share ideas on manufacturers, learn tips from high tunnel growers and dream about crops people hadn’t imagined outside of hard-walled greenhouses. The group pulled people from all backgrounds, including longtime homesteading families, Russian Old Believers and organic farmers. Growers raved about the success they had.
“I have 20-foot trees inside,” one man said. “They’re scaring me.”
“I have a family of four,” he went on. “We could have raised vegetables to feed five or six times that. ... You get four or five times the yield in there as you would outside.”
Corn 8-feet tall? Winter squash? Tomatoes in October?
Urban farmers Don and Donna Rae McNamara put in three high tunnels on their quarter-acre lot on Ocean Drive Loop with a killer view of Kachemak Bay — and the breeze that comes with it.
Protected from the wind, the McNamara’s Oceanside Farms had cherry tomatoes growing in mid-October. Fennell, blueberries, grapes, asparagus, pumpkins, eggplants, lettuce, zucchini, peas, hops ... the list goes on.
“He’s really excited about the hops,” Donna Rae said of her husband’s beer making. Already he has a batch brewing.
“This is our first season growing and it’s been fantastic,” Don McNamara said.
Started in late 2009, Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan announced the program as part of the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative.
“There is great potential for high tunnels to expand the availability of healthy, locally grown crops — a win for producers and consumers,” Merrigan said in 2009. “We know that these fixtures can help producers extend their growing season and hopefully add to their bottom line.”
Under the program, growers who own or control land for at least five years can apply for funding for up to a 30-foot-by-72-foot high tunnel, 2,160-square feet or about 5 percent of an acre. With shipping, that size tunnel can cost up to $15,000. The program paid $4.86 a square foot in 2011, to a maximum of $10,585.
High tunnel growers also get an annual subsidy for three years to do nutrient and pest incentive programs. For a full-size tunnel, growers got subsidies of up to $4,800 a year.
“We’re helping them to do it correctly,” Kinney said of the incentive programs. A range management specialist, he admitted he’s learned from some growers. “Some of them know more about this than I do. Some of them are teaching me.”
Manufacturers have to use steel frames and 6-mil thick polyethylene plastic and warranty the building for 5 years. With no Alaska manufacturers yet approved, high tunnel growers order from Lower 48 manufacturers. High tunnel owners get reimbursed once the tunnels are installed.
“What’s amazing is how many people signed the contracts and immediately moved forward to order the kits,” Kinney said.
In some government programs, people sometimes don’t follow through or understand the rules of the program. Kinney hasn’t seen that with high tunnel growers.
“Every single one I’ve certified has been beautiful,” he said of high tunnels that have been built. “Everyone who has signed up has taken this program seriously.”
During the 5-year contract, growers can’t grow crops on tables or baskets in the high tunnel so as to not compete with commercial greenhouses. The high tunnel sits on top of tillable, mostly flat ground. Most growers put in rigid ends with doors big enough to drive small tractors into. The McNamaras split up their tunnels into three to fit on their city lot. Kinney said some neighbors have gone into together on tunnels, although the contract has to be assigned to one owner, with other growers leasing a section.
Although a lot of the Farmers’ Market producers were early adopters of high tunnels, growers don’t have to be farming for money. All it takes to qualify is to show that in two out of the past five years a grower produced at least $1,000 of product.
“Even if all you’re doing is growing for your family, you meet the definition of an agricultural producer,” Kinney said. “That’s what allowed so many people to be eligible.”
That’s what got Neil and Kyra Wagner into high tunnels. Neil Wagner first thought the high tunnels were for commercial growers. He heard Kinney speak at the Homer Garden Club and realized they could qualify.
“That’s what caught my eye,” he said of the $1,000 qualification. “We easily do that.”
The Wagners have two “his and her” tunnels on their 2.5-acre city lot. Neil is into production while Kyra is into experimentation. Cooperating with some Nikolaevsk families he met at Kinney’s office, the Wagners ordered a group of high tunnels from FarmTech in the Midwest, getting a 10-percent discount and sharing shipping costs on a 40-foot container. That’s the sort of cooperation Kyra Wagner has been encouraging with the Homer High-Tunnel Growers group.
Normally working in range management, Kinney said much of his job the past few years has been helping high tunnel growers. He loves it, he said.
“It’s been an interesting thing to do for the last couple of years,” he said. “Every once in a while, someone brings me a cucumber. I get a lot of people talking to me ... I can’t get through a line (at the grocery store) without people talking to me.”
Kyra Wagner said she doesn’t know why high tunnels have been such a success.
“That is a really good question. We have a really good word of mouth thing going on. People hear about it from friends and neighbors,” she said. “It’s kind of like a movement. You can’t pinpoint it to one thing.”
Whatever the reason, Kinney thinks it has revolutionized lower peninsula agriculture. With Farmers’ Market high tunnel producers just this summer growing crops, the early effects are just being seen. Kyra Wagner said some growers brought in crops two weeks earlier, and reported better production. As more high tunnel growers build and grow crops next season, Homer could see better production sooner, with more growers and foods never before seen here.
“It’s kind of exciting how big it is. It’s really the biggest boon in small-scale agriculture that as far as I can tell Alaska has seen,” she said.
“This could be a permanent part of our program, and it could be fantastic,” Kinney said. “It will change agriculture in Alaska.”