High Tunnel Program May Be of Limited Use in SoDak if Proposed Restrictions Apply

Image from Iowa State University's Integrated Crop Management site

I’ve posted here before about the USDA-NRCS new 38-state high tunnel pilot program.  Some of the program’s rules and restrictions are set up on a state-by-state basis, and information has been trickling in over the last couple of weeks from extension personnel and producers about how South Dakota’s program will be managed.

Frankly, it’s sounding less useful the more I’ve learned.  The program offers up to $2.50 per square foot for one high tunnel on each participating farm.  However, the number of producers who will actually be eligible seems to be pretty small if the restrictions I’m hearing about are put into place.

For one, producers will only be eligible if they own the land they are producing on (and on which the high tunnel will be built).  I can understand this kind of restriction for a structure-based study–if you don’t own the land the structure is on, it’s hard to control what happens to, in, and around that structure.

The second restriction I’m hearing about makes me scratch my head: apparently, participants in the study will be required to remove the plastic from their high tunnel for the winter months.  I can understand that in places with heavy snow, this might seem like a reasonable requirement–snow load can contribute to damage and/or collapse.

But the main idea behind high tunnel production is to extend the season–later in fall and earlier in spring, and for some crops–all the way through the winter.  It’s pretty hard to do that if you have to dismantle the cover over the winter.

And how, exactly, do participants get the cover back on in late winter or early spring–especially if we do have heavy snows?  I don’t know about other producers, but digging out the entire inside of my structure and all the way around it in order to get the cover back on for direct seeding in February or March seems kind of ridiculous.

It would seem more reasonable to expect participants to exercise a certain level of care for their high tunnel–including snow removal, if needed.  Some local producers I’ve talked to have indicated that snow load isn’t generally as much of an issue as you’d think–our winds tend to take care of much of the snow issue at least on the top of the structure.

Another reported stipulation of the program in South Dakota is that it’s only going to be for certified organic producers or those already in transition.  If one of the stated goals of the program is to reduce pesticide use (and it is one of the stated goals), then the organic producers probably shouldn’t be your prime participatory target.

And there’s that according to the 2007 figures, South Dakota had only 83 total certified organic producers.  Total. That’s meat, dairy, grains, and the types of crops that could be produced in a high tunnel.

While I was unable to find the numbers for how many of those producers (and I assume we have a few more by now) were actually doing specialty/fruits/veggie crops, the fact that an August 2008 Extension publication (PDF!) on the practices and prevalence of organic agriculture in South Dakota only mentions meat and grains gives one the idea that the numbers of those doing high tunnel-type crops is very low.

As does the fact that, according to the USDA, South Dakota ranked 14th in total acres under organic certification, but 24th in the number of operators doing organic agriculture in 2007 (from the above Extension publication). A larger number of acres and a smaller number of producers typically means the producers are doing big acreage crops–grains and meats.

Looking at USDA tables on certified organic acreage, in 2005 we had only 29 acres planted to certified organic vegetables–in the whole state. This doesn’t take into account some crops that can be grown in high tunnels–herbs and some fruits, but those figures are mashed in with things like tree fruits and nursery/greenhouse stock that can’t or aren’t.

Again, I’m assuming these numbers are higher now, but I’m guessing they are not yet high enough to justify making a high tunnel program available only to those who are engaging in certified organic agriculture.

Some of the producers I’ve talked to have indicated that NRCS is implementing these restrictions based on information they’re getting from other states.  That’s not necessarily a bad idea, but I get the sense that they might be flying a little blind in terms of what this state’s growers want and need.

Our situation is different than a lot of other states in this region–in that we have fewer certified organic producers and a very recently-fledged local and regional food movement.  Our needs shouldn’t be likened to Minnesota’s, Iowa’s, or Nebraska’s because we’re so far behind them in our development of local foods infrastructure.

I see this high tunnel program as an excellent way to boost local and regional food production and even to nudge growers in the direction of organic and sustainable methods.

I had hoped that the program would be widely available–especially to fill the produce gaps at the beginning and end of our season (and maybe even call into question whether there should be a “beginning” or “end”!) and to increase revenue for producers who are facing hard economic times.

Producers should call on their state and local NRCS offices and express their desire to participate in the program, and the parameters they’d like to see put in place.  I do not know what kind of leverage we have at this point in the process, but if we make our needs known at the state level, we may see expanded program opportunities in the future.

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