Hoophouses right for North

Alex Rice trims plastic from around door of Marie and Dale Rice’s hoophouse, which was erected in spring 2010 as part of the USDA’s cost-share, high tunnel program. (Dale Rice photo)

On Friday night, over the dinner hour no less, a crowd of 75 “hoopies” gathered at Kodiak College to exchange ideas and pose questions about one of the most innovative and exciting developments in farm and garden circles across the country: hoophouses.

“There was so much enthusiasm in the room,” remarked one participant, “you could feel it in the air.”

Hoophouses (also called high tunnels) are structures made of plastic or metal pipe and covered with plastic or other sheeting. Easy to build, maintain and move, they provide an energy-efficient way to extend the growing season on both ends. Unlike greenhouses, they require no energy, relying on sunlight to modify the climate inside to create favorable conditions for growing vegetables and other crops.

To gardeners in the north, hoophouses provide a giant source of hope, for a single layer of plastic, acting as a shield against heavy rain, wind and frost, can mean the difference between bumper crops and no crop. Hoophouses also protect against pests such as root maggots and aphids, and larger pests like rabbits, deer, and birds.

Kodiak and Kenai top in the nation

Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, a huge supporter of hoophouses, recently announced that more than 2,400 high tunnels are being constructed by farmers and home gardeners in 43 states through a cost-share program offered through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Of those, a record number have been built in Southcentral Alaska.

“To date we have funded 123 high tunnels in the Homer and Kodiak field office areas,” said Mark Kinney, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Homer. “Of these, 29 are in Kodiak … Our field office area has far more than any other field office in the nation.”

Providing sustainability

The three-year pilot program is all about sustainability, helping private agricultural producers extend their growing season by four to six weeks in cold climates.

“The hoophouse project is actually about the most important sustainability and resiliency project going in Kodiak today,” said Donna Jones, co-coordinator for Sustainable Kodiak.

“By capturing solar energy, high tunnels create favorable conditions enabling farmers to grow vegetables, berries and other specialty crops in climates and at times of the year in which it would otherwise be impossible,” Merrigan said. “Growers who sell their high tunnel produce locally benefit from the extra income, and the community benefits from the availability of fresh, locally grown food.”

At a time when global food prices have reached an all-time high, the ability to grow food locally is fast becoming a necessity everywhere. In Alaska, we import nearly 95 percent of the food we consume. And on Kodiak Island, it’s estimated that only two to four days’ worth of food exists on store shelves. Tsunamis and earthquakes are natural disasters that can disrupt shipping; what about manmade ones such as unionized labor strikes that would interrupt food shipments?

Without a doubt, hoophouses provide hope and stability for the whole community, particularly the outlying villages.

How to apply for the hoophouse program

The application process is fairly straightforward. To apply for the third and final year of the program, you need to follow a few key program guidelines:

• Applicants must certify that they have produced up to $1,000 worth of food in the last two years.

• Applicants must have control of the land for the five year contract.

• The land must be in agricultural (garden) production, level, plowed and ready to plant.

More detailed program guidelines and application packets can be picked up at the Kodiak Soil and Water Conservation District office (above Tony’s Bar). Applications must be submitted by June 15, 2011, to be considered for funding in 2012. An NRCS computer program will randomly select qualified applicants.

Applicants awarded contracts with NRCS must purchase an approved high tunnel kit, rather than build their own. The high tunnel must be maintained throughout the winter and for the first three growing seasons, soil and fertilize tests must be taken. Program guidelines now allow electricity (lights, fan, heat) to be added to existing tunnels.

For more information contact Mark Kinney at (907) 235-8177, extension 103, or email mark.kinney@ak.usda.gov.

Garden calendar

Tips and tasks:

• Cover raised beds with plastic to hasten thawing-out process.

• Collect kelp and aged manure (horse, cow, poultry) to turn into soil as conditioner.

• Pull any emerging weeds.

• Pick up fallen twigs, branches and other debris from your yard and garden.

What to sow now

Vegetables to start from seed: peppers (greenhouse/hoophouse crop), kale, Brussels sprouts, peppers, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, lettuce (head and leaf), mustard greens and cabbage

Herbs to start from seed: dill, parsley, thyme, and oregano.Tubers to start: Begonias and dahlias.

Flower seeds to start: calendula, dianthus, stock, lockspar, delphinium, cosmos, snapdragon, ageratum, godetia, aster, phlox, celosia, malva, and salvia.

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