By Mary Douglas Penick
NRCS Soil Conservationist

At the Little Creek Farm produce stand, I sit and watch, bemused, as customers come and go, ever in search of quality fruits and vegetables.  Today, the items in demand include: sweet corn, green beans, and tomatoes.  Since I’m not buying anything (yet), I stand aside and listen to Wayne Moss talk to customers as he packs up ears of sweet corn by the baker’s dozen.  The hot August sun beats down on our heads, while a light breeze offers minimal relief from the heat.  From the produce stand, I can see the fields and garden structures that helped him generate his wares.  In one particular structure, the tomato plants are at least seven feet tall.  Small tomatoes hang from vines that grow so closely together, you have to push your way into the jungle that is Wayne Moss’s high tunnel.

“Yeah, they’re starting to slow down now. Early this summer, [the tomatoes] were huge, and now they’re getting smaller and smaller,” says Moss.

“They’re just about finished.”

That is not to say that his plantings fared poorly this season.  Moss estimates that the plants yielded 100 pounds of tomatoes per week, beginning in June and lasting until the end of August.  Different varieties of tomatoes, including grape and Park’s Whopper, grown under the same roof produced fruits that kept customers coming in all summer long (yes, I was among them).

Moss’s production system is slightly different from many producers.  Instead of a greenhouse or hydroponic facility, this year’s tomato crop was grown in a high tunnel structure.  It looks like a large greenhouse, but with a plastic roof and sides that can be rolled up by hand.  The soil inside is tilled, fertilized, and covered with plastic prior to transplanting the plants.  Well, Wayne already has a greenhouse, so I have to ask why a high tunnel was so desirable.

“We keep hearing about high tunnels at different meetings (like the Southern Association of Organic Growers), and they just seem to be the way to go.”  According to Moss, a high tunnel system is conducive to a more intense, high-yield production system.  Compared to conventional planting and plasticulture, it grants the grower better control of water usage and temperature, while increasing yields and adding days to the plants’ growing season.  Moss estimates the plants in his high tunnel gained an extra 30 days of production.  He also reports that the quality of his tomatoes improved in the high tunnel.  Grape tomatoes produced in the high tunnel had fewer splits and better yield than the same plant grown in the field.

Moss utilizes plasticulture in his fields and inside the high tunnel.  Plasticulture involves covering tilled soil with transparent green plastic (he does not recommend red plastic, as yields were lower than those of green plastic), then planting seedlings in this prepared bed.  Because soil-borne diseases are easily transmitted via water, farm equipment, and splashes from raindrops, plastic coverings are a means of maintaining clean soil and preventing pathogenic contamination.  Plastic also holds soil in place, diminishing erosion and transfer from one plot to another.  Another attractive aspect has several growers excited: plasticulture can increase yields, sometimes twice those of conventional plantings.  In a high tunnel, yields are even greater than similar plasticulture field plots.

A primary incentive, however, is the cost: building a high tunnel costs significantly less than a standard greenhouse.  The structure itself is more simply designed and easily built. Daytime ventilation is achieved by raising the sides, which prevents burning the plants with excess heat.  It gets hot in a high tunnel throughout the day; depending on climate, the need for a secondary heat source may be nonexistent.  Moss did not install a heat source, stating that none would be needed as long as the sides were kept down overnight and the temperature stayed above 25° F.   The design also allows for cold weather cropping, meaning production can continue year-round.

Moss was able to install his high tunnel at a reduced rate through the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).   He qualified for a cost-share program that assisted with the installation cost.  It permitted him to install a large high tunnel for very little money.

“The incentive from NRCS was just incredible. We only had a couple hundred dollars in it after the EQIP payment.”

The EQIP program provides up to a 75% cost-share on farm conservation practices for qualifying applicants.  In addition to fixing problem areas on farms, it assists producers in constructing fences, improving wildlife habitat, and conserving water resources, all in the name of conservation and better farm production.

Moss has been tickled with the high tunnel since he installed it.  His enthusiasm is evident when he proudly displays the towering tomato plants and the structure surrounding them.  His success has encouraged others in the area to look into building high tunnels and enquire about conservation programs.  I have the good luck to meet a fellow high tunnel owner this morning at Moss’s farm, and she is just as excited about hers. Wendy Williams, owner of 3 Sisters Farm here in Cookeville, just finished constructing her high tunnel.  She, too, applied and qualified for the EQIP program.  She already had one hoop house, but needed some assistance to build a newer, larger house.  Williams plans to start seeding and transplanting winter greens in her high tunnel in the coming months.  She will raise turnip greens, kale, lettuce, and other greens to sell at the farmers’ market in Cookeville.  Sequential plantings will allow the harvests to continue throughout the winter, too.

Moss and I talked a little more about the high tunnel and his future plans.  He would like to construct a second one specifically for growing heirloom and grape tomatoes, but for now he is happy with the current structure.  If he can qualify for another one through EQIP, though, he will jump at the chance.

After a long chat, with the occasional interruption from a tomato or green bean-seeking customer, I left Little Creek Farm with a notebook full of answered questions and a sampling of okra and honey.  Alas, no tomatoes were in my car.  I suppose I can wait ‘til next year.