Important Update on NRCS High Tunnel Pilot Program
January 29th, 2010
By Martha Noble, NSAC
|High tunnels help to extend the growing season for lettuce on Don Bustos’ Santa Cruz farm in Santa Fe, NM; Photo by Jess Daniel
Update on Final Tally (February 2, 2010)
The date for states to opt into the NRCS Seasonal High Tunnel Pilot Program closed on January 29 with 42 states, including Hawaii and the Pacific Islands, choosing to participate. States not signed up by January 29 include Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, New Jersey, Oregon and Texas, as well as Puerto Rico.
The final entry was Utah which is offering the opportunity to farmers to receive assistance for seasonal high tunnels through the Agricultural Management Assistance Program. The Utah pilot is limited to producers in the Great Salt Lake Resource Conservation and Development area and Utah Tribal lands. The RC&D serves Salt Lake, Davis, Weber, Tooele, and Morgan counties.
As we reported in December, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service has launched a 3-year pilot program to provide cost-share funding to farmers who want to extend the growing season on their farms by using high tunnels (sometimes referred to as hoop houses).
The tunnels are made by covering hoops with plastic and placing them over the growing area. NRCS has developed an interim conservation practice standard for the high tunnels and will fund them through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. The pilot program will help NRCS to assess environmental benefits that may result from the use of the tunnels. In return for receiving a cost-share to establish the tunnel, farmers will take steps to control runoff from the high tunnel systems and will report to NRCS about changes in pesticide use and other conservation measures.
Some good news: At the time of the December announcement there were 37 states that opted to participate in the pilot. Now there are 40. The three new additions are Michigan, North Carolina, and Virginia. The opt-in option closes today (January 29), so the list of 4o states is now final.
When does sign-up end? EQIP has a continuous sign-up process so farmers may submit applications at any time during the year. However, there is a cut-off date after which proposals are ranked and then contracts awarded. In many states the cutoff date for general EQIP sign-ups is today, January 29, though in a few states it is earlier and in several it is later. For farmers wanting to do the hoop house/high tunnel practice who have not submitted applications by the general enrollment cut-off date, there may still be options.
First, for organic farmers, there is in many but not all states an option to enroll for the hoop house practice through the EQIP Organic Initiative which has a cutoff date of not earlier than March 12.
Second, NRCS State Conservationists have the option to extend the State’s EQIP cut-off date for individual practices, so farmers should check with the State NRCS office to find out if the hoop house/high tunnel practice has an extended deadline in their particular state.
Third, EQIP funds that have not been used by April 1 are re-pooled and then re-allocated to states and particular issues with high demand. So there may in fact a post-April 1 opportunity for hoop house/high tunnel enrollments.
Bottomline — Farmers should contact their NRCS State Office for information about the sign-up in their state and which cutoff date(s) apply in their state.
Quirk — NRCS State offices have the discretion to make this new practice available only to organic farmers through the Organic Initiative. Though NSAC has not surveyed state offices, we have heard reports from the field that a small number of states may in fact have decided to limit the option in this manner. (Editorial note – Our strong preference would be for states to make this option available to all producers.)
Answers to Farmers’ Questions — A number of specific questions have been sent to NSAC and NSAC member groups by farmers contemplating enrollment. We now have answers from NRCS.
One question we have received deals with tunnel height. The NRCS Interim Conservation Practice Standard is strict on this point, allowing only the construction of tunnels that reach at least 6 feet at their highest point. Smaller tunnels are not eligible.
Another question that has come our way from multiple states is whether the plastic cover must be removed in the winter months, or whether covers that can withstand snow loads may be left in place, thereby allowing early spring season extension. Some helpful clarification has been sent to us by NRCS Headquarters on this point: “If the structure will withstand the wind and snow loads it is not necessary to remove the plastic. However, if wind or snow loads damage the structure, then the producer would be expected to restore the functionality.”
Finally, some farmers have asked about whether if they pay (without EQIP assistance) for electric heating, if that is allowable under the new program. The answer from NRCS on that issue is no. No electricity is permitted with these structures, even if the source is wind, solar or other renewable energy source, and even if the farmer pays out of his or her own pocket. The NRCS rationale is that electricity will be used for heating the high tunnels and that NRCS believes tunnels are used only to slightly extend a growing season, not to produce crops in extremely cold weather. (Editorial note – In our view, by the way, farmers using seasonal tunnels to grow winter crops of leafy greens and other cold hearty produce for local markets should be encouraged to use renewable, low carbon energy in these systems, not only for heat if needed, but also for ventilation.)
Over the next three years of the pilot program, NSAC will work through our member organizations, the NSAC NRCS State Technical Committee Network, and farmer networks to promote this initiative, improve and expand the Interim Standard, and ensure that the conservation goals are met for improved water quality and decreased pesticide use, increase local food markets, and increase farmers’ income.