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High Tunnels: A Three-Year Pilot Practice

USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service supported the construction of over 4,200 high tunnels on farms throughout the country in 2010 and 2011.

As a heat wave consumes much of the country, especially here in Washington, DC, winter seems a long way off—unless you’re a farmer.  For the 2.2 million farms that grow our nation’s food, fiber, and fuel, it’s likely a good time to be thinking ahead to the upcoming harvest and preparing for the colder months.  One thing that may come to mind is a high tunnel, or a hoop house.

What is a high tunnel? It’s an unheated greenhouse, or more specifically, “a structure, at least six feet in height, which modifies the climate inside to create more favorable growing conditions.”  High Tunnels are generally constructed using plastic or metal pipes as ribbing and plastic sheeting as a cover.  They allow farmers to extend their growing seasons, begin selling harvests earlier in the spring and later in the fall, and can reduce pesticide use, keep nutrients in the soil, improve water quality, and increase yields.

With these benefits in mind, USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) announced a High Tunnel Pilot Study last December.  Since then, with the help of NRCS field offices and agricultural groups such as the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, the practice has attracted lots of interest nationally as one piece within the larger NRCS portfolio of programs that helps sustain environmental quality and agricultural productivity.

We also helped install a smaller version of a high tunnel, more suited to home gardens, in the White House Kitchen Garden. Many farmers have also used high tunnels for farm-to-school programs. Thanks to the NRCS team in Michigan, you can learn more about high tunnels (and even how to build your own) by clicking here.

This year USDA is helping farmers build more than 2,300 high tunnels in 43 states to protect their crops and extend growing seasons.  As USDA and NRCS continue to evaluate the effectiveness of this pilot practice, it is already clear that the program has attracted new customers and increased the reach of NRCS conservation programs.  If you are a farmer who would like to learn more about participating in the pilot, call your local NRCS office.

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