High tunnels are hitting the mark for farmers who sell their produce at the Athens Farmers Market. In the past, the market operated once a week on Saturday mornings between April and October. But now, because some northeast Georgia growers are using the tunnels to extend their growing seasons, the market is open twice a week, from April until mid-December—a full eight months!
A USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service program has helped these producers produce fruit and vegetables longer, extending the market’s open season by two months.
NRCS’ High Tunnel Initiative provides producers with financial and technical assistance to build high tunnels, which extend the growing season into the cold months. High tunnels, sometimes referred to as hoop houses, have a metal frame wrapped in plastic and are easy and fairly cheap to build and are passively heated.
These structures allow farmers to generate income as the temperature drops in the fall and winter, when the types of crops they grow outdoors are limited. They offer a significant benefit to owners of small farms, limited-resource farmers and organic producers by providing a steady source of income during what would typically be lean months.
Because of their high tunnels, northeast Georgia small farmers like Todd Lister and Jay Payne are able to sell fresh vegetables like tomatoes into the winter season. Previously, most crops would have been gone from their fields much sooner.
“If I didn’t have hoop houses, I would be creeping down right at the end of it,” Lister says, referring to the fact that without the hoop houses, he would have harvested all of his produce weeks earlier.
With NRCS’s help, Lister built a high tunnel on his five-acre farm in Washington, Ga., in 2010. Lister grows spinach, kale, lettuce, beets, carrots, eggplants, peppers, flowers and basil.
Payne grows a variety of produce as well, including beans, okra, peas, peppers, potatoes and squash. He signed up for the High Tunnel Initiative in 2011. The extended growing season has helped his bottom line—especially because he can now sell more produce for longer periods at the Athens Farmers Market. And Payne says he earns 85 to 90 percent of his income from selling at the market. The rest of his income is generated through a Community Supported Agriculture network.
As these two farmers and others continue to use their high tunnels to extend their season, provide more locally grown food to their communities through the Athens Farmers Market and share their knowledge, other growers will learn how they can make their farms more economically viable with help from NRCS.
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