Connecticut Grown Avocados? Farm Bill Program Helps New England Farmers Grow Winter Crops

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Ginger and Turmeric Growing in Greenhouse at Stone Barns Center For Food and Agriculture, photo: Maggie Tauranac

It's a common misconception that crop farmers in cold climates don't have anything to do in the winter after the harvest. Although it may be freezing and awful outside, these farmers, unlike the rest of us, don't spend the winter indoors binge-watching Netflix. There are meetings to attend, machines to fix, paperwork to do and research to catch up on.

There's also food to grow. Thanks to seasonal high tunnels - or hoop houses as they are commonly known -provided to farmers through grant programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, farmers in areas with long, cold winters are able to extend the farming season and grow year round, even when there is snow outside. High tunnels are greenhouses made of metal hoops covered in plastic that are heated and lit with natural sunlight. The program, administered through a state's Natural Resources Conservation Service office, provides cost-sharing and technical assistance to farmers to help participants install structures or implement practices that conserve and improve natural resources.

Socially disadvantaged (including minority and native American producers), limited resource, veteran and beginning farmers and ranchers are all eligible for having up to 90 percent of their project costs covered by the program. These groups of farmers, which have historically experienced significant barriers to accessing capital and farmland, are able to access consumer markets and increase revenues through the program that may have otherwise been unavailable. Since 2009, the EQIP Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative has provided over 14,000 high tunnels and over $93 million to farmers across the US. The program, which appears in the Conservation title of the 2014 Farm Bill, has $1.75 Million in mandatory funding in FY2018 available for farmers.

Environmental and Financial Benefits of EQIP High Tunnels

High tunnels help farmers grow crops more sustainably. Because crops are shielded from rain and other elements, they allow farmers to use drip irrigation, which delivers water and nutrients directly to plants without much waste. High tunnels can also help farmers improve soil and plant quality through sustainable practices like cover crops and crop rotation which can prevent erosion and can reduce the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

In addition, by helping farmers extend the growing season, high tunnels help increase farmer income and keep seasonal workers employed longer. Season extension is also great for consumers interested in buying local and supporting regional food systems. By allowing crops to be grown year round, high tunnels make it possible for consumers living in cold climates to buy greens, berries, tomatoes and sometimes even tropical crops like figs, avocadoes and ginger from local farmers in the dead of winter. This can help reduce a region's dependence on imported food and consumer's ecological footprint while boosting local farm economies.

However, there are some challenges to growing in high tunnels, especially for inexperienced farmers. If a crop is lost due to frost or other issues, regrowth in the tunnel can be incredibly slow, due to the short days and limited natural light available in the winter. As a result, farmers can't harvest plants in high tunnels as often as they can crops grown outdoors during the regular growing season without wiping out the entire stock of the crop. If they aren't harvested correctly, farmers and their customers can be left with a limited and inconsistent supply of their winter crops.

EQIP Success Stories

Below are a few stories about New England farmers that have successfully used high tunnels to extend their growing season and bottom line through the EQIP program:

Urth Farm

Urth Farms, based in New Britain, Connecticut, is an organic urban farm that works with local non-profits to help improve healthy food access in their surrounding community. The farm operates a mobile market, education programs and a winter CSA. Using their hoop house acquired through the EQIP program, the farm is able to grow organic tomatoes, kale, avocado and grapefruit - even in the dead of winter in central Connecticut - for local residents as well as for nearby restaurants.

Pork Hill Farm

In 2014, organic farmers Katie Doyle Smith and Paul Swegel of Pork Hill Farm in Ossippee, New Hampshire applied for and received cost sharing funding for a high tunnel through the EQIP program. The farmers were able to use their high tunnel to successfully grow tomatoes and greens for their CSA program participants and wholesale customers throughout the winter. "Growing in the high tunnel takes up less space by growing vertically, helps regulate water usage, and we can produce more marketable tomatoes for essential wholesale markets," Katie told National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition in an interview in June 2014.

Dickey Hill Farm

In 2016, farmer Noami Brautigam of Dickey Hill Farm was able to purchase a high tunnel using a cost sharing grant through the USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service. On her diversified farm in Monroe, Maine, she grows an acre of organic field vegetables and raises grassfed beef. Using skills she'd acquired through courses on winter farming at the University of Vermont, Brautigam and her husband planted the tunnel with herbs and greens. Although unusually low temperatures in December damaged her lettuce and Swiss chard crops, the farmers have successfully been able to use their high tunnel to extend their season and grow kale, collard greens, scallions and herbs this winter which they sell wholesale through their website as well as at the Belfast Co-op, Monroe Village store and local restaurants.