USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan recently joined White House Assistant Chef and Food Initiative Coordinator Sam Kass and other USDA officials, staff, and volunteers to help winterize the garden on the White House grounds by establishing tunnels and cover crops.
Tunnels, or hoop houses, are non-permanent structures designed to extend the growing season for cool season crops by providing protection from the elements, especially frost, while also protecting soil and water quality. As a result, they can extend the availability of locally grown produce in a conservation-friendly way.
Deputy Secretary Merrigan explains: Because crops are enclosed much of the time, there tends to be less insect pressure on the plants. This can lead to a decrease in the amount of pesticides needed. Also, fewer nutrients need to be added to the soil since they are utilized more effectively and that in turn, reduces nutrient loss due to runoff. That’s good news for local water quality. And while I’m on the subject, I should mention that by using drip tape irrigation for the tunnels, water can be more cheaply and effectively applied directly to the roots of plants, helping decrease the amount of water needed.
Since the enclosures are insulated from rainfall, there is less disease pressure as the foliage is kept dry, which can reduce the need for fungicide application. Similarly, weed pressure is decreased as the covering reduces the number of unwanted seeds carried by birds and the wind, which can help to reduce herbicide usage.
Dave White, Chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), said that during a three-year, 38-state pilot, USDA’s NRCS will help farmers and landowners get tunnel efforts off the ground on a larger scale. NRCS will provide technical assistance and cost-share help through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Agricultural Management Assistance program. Farmers and landowners will also be eligible for assistance under the EQIP Organic Initiative.