Come Dec. 1, Scott Thellman expects to be harvesting green beans.
That’s right, fresh green beans in Kansas in December.
Thellman is one of eight farmers in Douglas County who are taking advantage of a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that helps pay for high tunnels. Large, unheated greenhouses, high tunnels — or hoop houses, as they are also known — allow farmers to protect their plants from the elements by covering the area with plastic that’s attached to metal stakes and arches.
High tunnels extend the growing season by a few weeks on each side. For Kansans who like to buy their produce locally, that means fresh strawberries in May and tomatoes in October. Shoppers will find local greens earlier and later in the season at locally owned downtown restaurants, The Community Mercantile and the Lawrence Farmers’ Market.
The grant signifies a shift in how the federal government disperses money to farmers. In the past, farm programs have largely targeted commodity crops such as wheat, soybeans and corn.
“For vegetable and fruit growers there has been very little help,” said Bill Wood, director of Douglas County’s K-State Research and Extension office. “This is one way to improve that. And, it also strengths the local food possibilities.”
As more Americans become interested in increasing local food production, high tunnels will become more popular, said Dan Nagengast, executive director of the Kansas Rural Center.
Nagengast has been an advocate of high tunnels for years. With his wife, Lynn Byczynski, Nagengast has used four high tunnels for the past several years as part of their flower growing operation.
“As the weather gets extreme, it’s a really cheap way to put a piece of plastic between (your plants) and whatever the hell is going on,” Nagengast said.
With use of the tunnels, Nagengast’s farm has produced broccoli in January and leeks, cabbage and spinach over much of the winter. Their flowers were bigger and more bountiful.
“Soon, the question starts being, ‘why don’t we have the whole field under high tunnels?” he said.
For farms that are organic or will transition to become certified organic, the federal grant covers a large chunk of the cost of putting up a high tunnel, which can run between $5,000 and $7,000.
Close to 50 farmers in Kansas have taken advantage of the program. By far, the biggest group comes from Douglas County.
“Most of them are young producers wanting to find a niche market. There is certainly a demand in Douglas County and Johnson County for organic produce,” said Clyde Mermis, district conservationist with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the agency administering the grant through the USDA.
Outfoxing the weather
This week, Noah Wood was watering young salad greens that sat inside a hoop house at Wakarusa Valley Farms. In the back were still-producing tomato plants that he needed to clear to plant more salad mix.
Based on the success of his first hoop house, Mark Lumpe, owner of the farm, went ahead and applied for a grant to build a second one. As soon as Lumpe covers the structure with plastic, he plans to plant mushrooms and greens in that hoop house this fall.
“When it is really wet and I can get outside to work, I say ‘did I tell you how much I love my new hoop house?’ It always gives us something to do,” Lumpe said.
With more farmers using hoop houses, Lumpe hopes others will agree to sell later in the year at the farmers’ market or extend the weeks they sell food to groups of consumers through community-supported agriculture subscriptions.
“This will make a big difference,” Lumpe said.
For Thellman, the government’s offer to chip in $4,000 for his hoop house gave him the boost he was waiting for to start growing organic vegetables. The 20-year-old, who is a freshman at Iowa State University, started hay farming at 15. But he’s always wanted to try growing organic fruits and vegetables.
“So, this grant helped me take the next step,” Thellman said of the government’s offer to pay for 75 percent of the cost.
While he is away at school, Thellman has help from neighbor Barbara Clark, owner of Maggie’s Farm. Along with green beans, they have arugula, leeks, radishes, beets and basil growing under their hoop house.
“It’s kind of a learning experience,” Thellman said. “It’s not something you think about, going out and picking green beans in December.”