Expert Tips

Constructing a High Tunnel on Your Farm

High Tunnel Bows

Constructed high tunnel bows

CFSA’s Lomax Farm was awarded an NRCS-EQIP contract for a high tunnel through the High Tunnel Systems Initiative. Construction began during CFSA’s High Tunnel Construction Field Day at Lomax Farm on October 3, 2017.

The Lomax Farm staff documented the process, from applying for the NRCS grant to beginning construction of the high tunnel. If you are thinking about applying for funding for an NRCS-EQIP high tunnel, here is what you need to know.

 

Before you apply:

  • Obtain a Farm Services Agency (FSA) Farm ID. Because NRCS is a USDA-funded entity, you must register your farm with FSA and get a farm number. This will put your farm in the FSA system and make you eligible for federal funding, including other federal programs such as farm loans, crop insurance, and disaster compensation.
  • Contact your local NRCS area office. These offices often serve multiple counties, so check to see which office serves your county for North Carolina and South Carolina. Your local NRCS agent will be able to answer questions specific to your area.
  • Check if you are eligible. The High Tunnel Systems Initiative is for established growers to assist with season extension on land capable of growing crops. An area agent will come out to your farm for a site check and evaluate your eligibility, including whether you are already producing crops and if the land is appropriate for a high tunnel system.

 

Applying

Each state has different deadlines for applying. For North Carolina, the next deadline to apply for funding is November 17, 2017. For South Carolina the deadline is November 18, 2017.

 

Funding

Currently, NRCS will fund up to a maximum of 2,178 square feet of high tunnel space, which is roughly the size of a 30’x72’ tunnel. This means that if you apply for funding for a larger 30’x96’ tunnel, you are expected to pay the difference. However, if you receive funding for a smaller tunnel, you may apply for more funding in future years for another small tunnel, up to a lifetime maximum of 2,178 square feet.

 

Site Visit

When you are approved for funding, an NRCS agent will conduct a site visit and will work with you to choose the best location for the tunnel. The location of the tunnel will be based on a number of considerations, including proximity to viable irrigation, erosion potential, solar access, and topography. The location that is decided upon with input from your NRCS agent must be the final placement of the tunnel.

 

Choosing Your High Tunnel

The high tunnel must meet NRCS standards. This is usually not an issue and many manufacturers are already familiar with the guidelines. While you can select from a variety of high tunnels, NRCS requires that the tunnel be a manufactured kit, constructed to the manufacturer’s recommendations. The kits must also have a four-year warranty, and once constructed the tunnel must remain as it was originally designed for four years. This does not include adding enhancements, such as gutters or a rain catchment system.

 

Purchasing

Once the application has been approved and the contract is signed, you can purchase your high tunnel. You have one year from the time of signing the contract to construct your tunnel, and you will receive reimbursement only after the construction is complete and a site visit is made.

 

Once constructed, the high tunnel serves only to grow crops in the native soil within the tunnel, meaning hydroponic systems, portable grow containers, and raised beds over 12” tall are excluded. Additionally, the high tunnel may not be used to house livestock, or store equipment, farm supplies, hay or other feed.

 

What to Expect When You’re Expecting a High Tunnel

 

Ground Preparation

When you choose a site for the tunnel, even the most ideal location might require some grading work. The ground should be as level as possible to ensure proper construction, and to minimize erosion and water runoff. Unless you have the proper equipment such as a skid steer or tractor with a bucket attachment, grader blade, land leveler, or box blade, plan to contract this work and budget an extra $500-$1,000. Also consider where your high tunnel is in relation to your other fields, and whether you will need to install a diversion ditch or soil conservation swale.

 

Finished Graded Pad

Finished Graded Pad

 

Delivery

Depending on what model you order and what manufacturer you order it from, the packaging and freight will vary. Remember to budget in the cost of shipping, which could be upwards of $1,500 for larger tunnels.

 

It is critical that you have the right equipment and tools for unloading the pieces to maintain your personal safety and to minimize damage to the high tunnel. The tunnel will most likely be delivered on a tractor-trailer, strapped to pallets at the back of the container. On the day the high tunnel arrives, make sure you are ready to receive it with the following:

  • Tractor or skid steer with forks. If the pieces arrive on pallets, the easiest way to unload the tunnel is with forks, as long as the tractor has enough horsepower and weight behind it so as not to tip.
  • Pallet jack. If unloading or re-stacking by hand.
  • Bolt cutters. Some pieces might be wrapped together with steel strapping and will need to be cut before unloading.
  • Gloves and sturdy shoes. The metal pieces are sharp and heavy.
  • Plenty of time. Budget at least an hour for unloading, even if you have extra hands to help out.

 

 

Inventory

After unloading, take inventory of all the pieces to ensure complete shipment. Some manufacturers will require you to take inventory and report any missing pieces by a given deadline. This will also allow you to measure and identify all the pieces so you know what to look for when it comes time for construction.

 

Unloaded pieces on ground

Unloaded pieces on ground

 

Squaring the Corners and Measuring Posts

Once the pad has been made, you will need to set the corners and establish a perimeter. For this step you will need:

  • Measuring tape (at least 100 feet, and on a reel)
  • Rebar or stakes (enough for each corner)
  • Masons twine
  • Sledge hammer
  • Flags (enough for each side post)

For this process you will use the 3-4-5 ratio or the Pythagorean Theorem for right angle triangles to establish a 90° angle at each corner. Be sure to measure, and re-measure, and measure again. The structure of your tunnel quite literally rests on whether your corners are square.

 

Squaring corners of high tunnel

Squaring corners of high tunnel

 

For a 30’ wide tunnel, we measured 40’ down one side, and 50’ along the diagonal to establish a 90° angle at each corner.

 

When the corners are established, measure along the sides and mark with a flag where each side post will be set. Double-check your distances by measuring the width between the posts on either side.

side posts

Side posts

Setting the Posts

Once the placement of your side posts are established, you will need to set the posts in the ground. It is possible to install the side posts yourself with an auger or hydraulic post driver, but this is something that will need to be contracted out if you cannot do it yourself. Though there is an added cost for contracting out the work (about $200-$400), hiring a professional will save you time, and will allow the posts to be driven in much deeper.

Hydraulic post driver

Hydraulic post driver

 

A hydraulic post driver used to set the posts for the Lomax high tunnel.

Posts set in ground

Posts set in ground

 

 

 

 

Now you’re ready to start building!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more information on the High Tunnel Systems Initiative please visit the NRCS website, or contact your local NRCS area office.

 

Visit CFSA’s page on high tunnel consulting for more information on this service (free for members!).

 

Want to learn more about high tunnels?

Check out these workshops at CFSA’s Sustainable Ag Conference in Durham, November 3-5, 2017:

  • Friday Pre-conference (tickets required)
    • High Tunnel Tour
    • High Tunnel Crop Production: Sequential Planting, Soil Health, and Crop Projections (Friday Preconference)
  • Conference workshops:
    • High Tunnel Basics: Design, Performance, and Management
    • Grafted Heirloom Tomatoes in High Tunnels
    • Year Round Hoop-House Production

Scouting Your Vegetable Crops for Pests and Disease

pests on produce

As you are transitioning from summer to fall crops it is a good time to scout your fields for pests and disease. This also applies to transplants that might not yet be planted in the field. The last thing you want to do is to introduce disease to your field through infected seed. Scouting is an integrated pest management (IPM) strategy that systematically assesses the health of your crops and the threat of pest outbreak without having to inspect every plant in the field. By monitoring and scouting your plants routinely you are better able to detect early threats from either pests or disease and implement proper management strategies.

When scouting for disease, monitor your crop for symptoms, such as leaf discoloration, and signs, such as powdery mildew. Scouting for pests requires you to scout your field for insect activity including the presence of eggs on the underside of foliage, entry holes, or frass (insect excrement). It is equally important to monitor and record the scale of damage and pest population size. This data will be critical in deciding how best to manage the problem. Routine and detailed record keeping is essential to ensuring proper management of pest and disease pressure.

Essential Tools:

  • Hand lens for inspecting small insects, mites, insect eggs or feeding damage.
  • Small tally counter to keep insect counts accurate.
  • Traps of various forms that may or may not include lures to attract insects.
  • Camera for taking quality pictures. (You could probably use your phone for this)
  • Sweep net for collecting insects from foliage.
  • Shovel or spade and containers (paper bags, cups) for collecting plant, disease and insect samples.
  • Cooler for transporting and preserving samples.
  • Permanent marker to label containers with pest samples.
  • Diagram of your fields made by hand or graphing program.
  • Crop-pest scouting sheets for data collection.

 

Methods

There are four main methods to consider for scouting your field. These methods include visual observation, sweep net sampling, trapping and environmental monitoring.  Visual observation of crops and environmental monitoring should occur routinely to identify an early presence of pest or disease. Sweep net sampling and trapping apply mostly to pest pressure monitoring.  Before you begin to scout your fields develop a scouting plan that will divide your fields into manageable portions that can be organized by crop variety, size, and location.

Visual Observation:

This method works well when monitoring exposed feeding insects. Through this method you are able to observe the presence on beneficial insects or any beneficial parasites that might be present on pest insects. In addition to assessing pest levels this method allows you to observe any signs of plant disease, environmental damage, or any improper field management practices that could lead to an increase in pest or disease levels.

 

Visual signs that indicate insect damage or disease:

  • Cupped, chlorotic, spotted or malformed foliage.
  • Discolored, damaged, swollen or sunken areas in plant tissues.
  • Insect feeding, entrance holes in stems, chewing or rasping damage, or frass.
  • Aggregation of insects.
  • Pockets of less vigorous or dying plants.
  • Anything out of the ordinary.

Since visual observations can be subjective it is important to have the same person walk the fields routinely to monitor pest or disease levels. When walking the field, select a path that will allow for observing a random selection of crop. One common method is walking a “W” route through the field and selecting random leaves for inspection. It is important to inspect both sides of the leaf, looking for signs of potential pests. Don’t forget to record both your route and any observations made while in the field. Follow this same procedure each time that you scout your field, but remember to vary your path in order to cover different areas. Field areas with high levels of pest and/or disease should be scouted frequently.

Sweep Net Sampling:

This method is used to monitor the presence of small pests over a large area. Sweep net sampling works best in areas with low growing, flexible crops such as: carrots, peas, leafy greens, and onions. Pests that are easy to monitor with this method are pea aphids, flea beetles, and adult potato leafhoppers. An effective method for sweep net sampling requires you to swing the net in front of your body in a 180° arc from right to left and back again as you walk through the field. A sweep net made of muslin is preferable because it is lighter, more flexible, and dries quicker than nets made of other materials.

 

Trapping:

There are various trapping methods when it comes to pest pressure management. Two common methods are the use of attractants, such as pheromones, and the use of visual cues, such as soapy water. Pheromone traps are pest specific and are generally used for non-beneficial butterflies and moths. This particular trap will emit a sex pheromone produced by the female of a specific species to attract a mate, luring the mate to the trap. Traps that use visual cues act as a decoy for pests often mimicking plants, leaves, or fruit. Filling a bright colored dishpan with soapy water and placing it on the ground will attract aphids and other adult flies. The purpose of either one of these methods is to lure pests away from crops, while monitoring first catch, emergence, and tapering of the pest. Recording these observations will be important to have as a reference for future grow seasons.

 

General guidelines to follow when trapping:

  • Place traps in field about 2 weeks before the anticipated emergence of the targeted insect.
  • Refer to manufacturer or extension recommendations for trap placement and spacing.
  • Check and clean the traps weekly. Consider checking the traps more often until you notice the first pest emergence of the season.
  • Replace attractant lures as recommended and store in freezer to preserve.

 

Remember, scouting is the routine monitoring of pest and disease pressure in a crop. It is important to establish an action threshold for each of your crops. An action threshold is the point that you determine that you will experience economic loss if control measures are not taken to subdue the presence of disease or pest. Through this process, you are better able to detect and manage a problem within the field before it gets out of control and results in crop loss.

Tips for Growing a Bumper Fall Brassica Crop

by Mark Dempsey, Farm Services Coordinator

Broccoli Field

Photos by Jeanine Davis

With August now upon us, many growers across the Carolinas are preparing for fall crops – if they haven’t already started them in the greenhouse in the western parts of both states. Brassicas, a.k.a. cole crops, are staple fall crops among many vegetable growers because they generally command a good price at market and are popular for their nutrient density, impressive crop diversity, and culinary flexibility. Brassicas grown in the Carolinas include crops with flowering heads (broccoli & cauliflower), fattened stems and/or leaves (cabbage, Brussels sprouts & kohlrabi), leafy greens (kale, collards, choi & mustard), and roots (turnip & rutabaga). Fall-grown brassicas are especially popular because the end-of-season cold weather can sweeten them up and reduce insect pressure, making them tastier and sometimes easier to manage. But nailing down their management isn’t always easy. Below are several tips for growing a bumper fall brassica crop:

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How and Why to Conduct a Mock Recall in Preparation for a GAP Audit

by Patricia Tripp, CFSA’s Local Produce Safety Manager

Mock Recall

Growers that do everything right may still find themselves in a recall situation. Be ready with a Mock Recall.

The process of conducting a mock recall in preparation for a GAP audit is one of the of the requirements for GAP certification, but many growers feel that performing a mock recall may be misunderstood by buyers. The fear is that buyers will mistake a mock recall for a true recall. Fortunately, this is an industry standard and the majority of wholesale buyers are accustomed to assisting growers with this exercise.

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Managing Perennial Weeds in Organic Fields

by Mark Dempsey, CFSA Farm Services Coordinator

Mugwort through cover crop

Mugwort emerging through a rolled cover crop in late summer. Suppression from a rolled cover crop lasts several months, but a bad perennial weed infestation will eventually push through, requiring further treatment. Photo by Mark Dempsey.

Staying ahead of weeds this time of year is one of the organic farmer’s biggest challenges and a big drain on labor. In the Grower’s Toolbox last June, we addressed the management of annual weeds by focusing on preventing weeds from setting seed and on drawing down the weed seedbank. While annual weeds are generally the most common weed problem, if you have a perennial weed problem, you’ll probably dread it even more. In fact, since last year, we’ve gotten feedback from many farmers expressing the same sentiment: “I’ve got my annual weeds under control, but my perennial weeds just won’t die!”

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Reducing Disease in Field Tomatoes

by Gena Moore, CFSA’s Organic Research Coordinator

Pruners being used to remove a sucker. Photo by Gena Moore.

Pruners being used to remove a sucker. Photo by Gena Moore.

 

Tomato field production comes with many challenges.  Tomato plants are susceptible to many seasonal diseases and conditions that impact plant health and reduce marketable yields.  Although many challenges exist, there are some strategies you can take to mitigate disease risk and improve yield.  Strategies include both pre-plant and post-plant steps, so if you already have plants in the ground, consider implementing post-plant strategies this year and plan to incorporate pre-plant strategies later this year and in the next growing season.  Soil borne diseases have different impacts and control methods are different then what we’ll cover here.

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Reduce Post Harvest Losses by Implementing a Food Safety Program

by Patricia Tripp, CFSA’s Local Produce Safety Manager

Dylan Alexander of Alexander Acres, one of the Farmers in Training at Lomax Incubator Farm, washes greens post-harvest.

Dylan Alexander of Alexander Acres, one of the Farmers in Training at Lomax Incubator Farm, washes produce post-harvest.

 

Growers can produce large quantities of fruits and vegetables all day long, but without the proper systems in place you could miss out on the critical window of time when your produce is fresh and high-quality enough for market. Miss the window and product losses could be extensive. Taking every measure to improve product quality through the implementation of a food safety program will help to open up new market opportunities, reduce losses and improve the overall viability of your business.

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Bad Weather Ahead? NAP Could Have Your Farm Covered

by Rochelle Sparko, CFSA Policy Director

bad weatherCatastrophic flooding hit NC last year and SC the year before, damaging many farmers’ crops. These widespread disasters got me wondering whether CFSA’s member-farmers are aware of the different ways they can protect themselves from the financial consequences of natural disasters. To that end, I’ve put together some basic information about NAP. Take a look, and if you have questions, contact your local FSA office.

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Whole-Farm Revenue Protection

by Thomas Moore, CFSA’s NC Food Systems Coordinator

flooded fields - image from newsstand.clemson.edu

Photo from http://newsstand.clemson.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/poststorm4.jpeg

While attending Atina Diffley’s Wholesale Success workshop last month in Durham, NC, I was introduced to a valuable resource that can help new farmers mitigate risk of financial loss due to crop failure. The Risk Management Agency (RMA) within the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is now running a Whole-Farm Revenue Protection Pilot Program. Through this program farmers with at least five years of experience (you may qualify with fewer years if you qualify for as a beginner farmer or rancher) can insure their entire farm at local fair market value. Crop value is not based on commodity pricing, which is a great benefit for organic growers. This program could be a huge help for local growers across the Carolinas and should be something to consider when it comes to risk management assessment.

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Soil Sampling Basics

by Gena Moore, CFSA’s Organic Research Coordinator

Soil sampling, Gena Moore (2)

Soil sampling is an essential task for almost every grower. Whether you’re a home gardener, market gardener, commercial row-cropper or somewhere in between; you’ll end up needing your soil tested at some point. Knowing how to best sample your soil, where to send the sample and how to interpret the results are all important tasks. Below are some tips for successfully sampling your soil and understanding the results!

First, decide on a soil testing lab. There are several labs that test the soil in multiple ways. Remember, there is no “perfect” soil test and you always need to accept a margin of error in results. The best practice is to pick a testing lab that will give you your needed soil information and continue testing with the same lab for most future soil tests. This will provide the most reliable way to track any changes in your soil.

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