Critical Information and Free Equipment Offered to Fruit and Vegetable Growers through Kansas Rural Center’s “From Tunnel to Table” Program
The Kansas Rural Center’s “From Tunnel to Table” program is offering growers critical information for assessing the viability of polytunnels as strategic production tools in Kansas fruit and vegetable operations, and participants in any of three upcoming workshops may apply to receive free low-tunnel growing equipment.
The polytunnel workshops offer both beginning and advanced information on vegetable and fruit production under plastic-covered structures, such as low and high tunnels through expert presentations, exhibitors, educational materials, grower-to-grower information exchanges, and hands-on learning experiences.
The fall workshops will take place on three Sunday afternoons in Colby (August 31), Winfield (September 14), and in Clay Center (October 5). Registration opens in late-July. All fall workshop participants will be eligible to apply to receive free low tunnel infrastructure for their farms, and low tunnel training will be part of these events. Women, minorities, and limited-resource farmers are encouraged to participate.
A spring Tunnel to Table workshop was held in April and more than 100 people from across Kansas, and even Iowa, attended the workshop. The experience-level of participants in the April workshop was wide-ranging and included both seasoned farmers looking to diversify, experienced polytunnel growers, and gardeners seeking an entry point to establishing vegetable and fruit production businesses. Despite vastly different backgrounds, participants overwhelmingly reported leaving the event more knowledgeable than they came. A key reason for their positive feedback, perhaps, is that the Tunnel to Table workshop series is not designed to sell anyone on the idea that tunnels are an easy or silver-bullet solution to their growing challenges.
“Farms are all unique, and they require unique solutions to growing challenges,” explains Cole Cottin, KRC Program Coordinator and co-owner/operator of MAD Farm. “Our workshops and materials offer a comprehensive yet critical perspective on the reality of tunnel production in Kansas, and what it may or may not have to offer different growers. There’s no point avoiding the reality that, for some, tunnels may be costly, difficult to manage, and vulnerable to extreme weather – they don’t work for everyone. But, in the proper situation and with the right grower, polytunnels can be a profitable tool and asset on Kansas farms.”
Held at Juniper Hill Farms, north of Lawrence, Kansas, the first Tunnel to Table event kicked off on a chilly April morning with an engaging, entertaining, and inspiring presentation from Greg Garbos, owner of Four Season Tools and seasoned vegetable grower at City Bitty Urban Farm, Kansas City, Missouri. Greg began his career as an engineer for General Motors. Through a series of events, including a conversation with small farm icon, Eliot Coleman, Greg re-directed his engineering skills to help small farmers, creating state-of-the-art movable high tunnels with superior structural support that can handle Kansas’ climatic extremes. In addition he creates a number of other tools that can increase efficiency and maximize profit on farms. Garbos’ approach is scale-sensitive, and he coaches growers on choosing the right tool for them to ensure a return on their investment.
Grower-to-grower information exchange was a key feature of the day. Following Garbos’ overview of the broad range of polytunnel structure options, workshop participants turned their attention to interactive conversations with a panel of experienced producers. During panel discussions, each of four growers revealed how they utilize high and low tunnels profitably on their full-time produce farms.
Where one grower found it most lucrative to focus on extended season tomato production as his primary tunnel crop, another grower emphasized her preference for focusing on fall, winter, and spring production of cool season crops while seeding summer tunnels in soil health-building cover crops instead. Beyond tomatoes and greens, panelists spoke of successes and current trials of various raspberry, sweet corn, and other warm season crop varieties.
One farmer pointed to agritourism as a lucrative venture – he and his wife have cultivated a tunnel-sheltered “Butterfly Bio-Villa,” offering community members and school children educational opportunities while increasing the visibility of their farm stand and farm products. The value in diversity of income streams was a theme of panel discussions, where farmers exemplified that there is no single “best” way to utilize polytunnel structures.
Workshop farm-host and owner/operator of Juniper Hill Farms, Scott Thellman, provided an in-depth look at his farm finances, record keeping, and financial analysis tools. Scott has taken what he learned in his studies of Agricultural Business at Iowa State University to create detailed crop enterprise budgets that help him ensure his farm receives strong returns on every investment – including low tunnels, high tunnels and, as he scales-up, perhaps eventually multi-bay polytunnels that can cost-effectively span larger acreage.
Scott’s enterprise budgets are detailed – for example, listing each and every variety of hybrid and heirloom tomatoes grown in his tunnels, setting an income goal for them, and tracking the yield and income from each type of tomato sold. He says the process is time intensive, but it pays off by revealing exactly which varieties meet his profitability requirements and which do not. If a tomato does not meet his production goals, he will not grow it the following year and will increase production of those varieties that do perform. Scott’s strict financial tracking and analysis reflects his commitment to operating a farm that thrives as a business, providing a living wage to its employees while continuing to grow and expand into new markets and methods of production.
Workshop participants also toured Juniper Hill Farms’ tunnels, which provided much of the produce for their lunch. They were introduced to a wide range of tools and equipment used to manage the farm, and received hands-on experience constructing low tunnel structures. Participants used a pipe-bender to hand-bend 10-foot lengths of half-inch metal conduit, creating four foot wide by three-foot tall hoops. Spaced every five feet, 20 of these hoops created a 100-foot long low tunnel, to be covered with plastic so that Juniper Hill Farms could get a jump-start on summer squash production. The plastic is replaced with ‘row cover’ – a light-weight poly-spun fabric which will act as an insect barrier excluding squash bugs and squash vine borers until the plants are well established and flowering – once temperatures stabilize in the spring.
Those who missed the spring workshop can visit KRC’s website to view content from workshop presentations http://kansasruralcenter.org/spring-2014-tunnel-to-table-workshop-speakers-and-presentations.
Registration for fall “Tunnel to Table” workshops, and a call for applications for free low tunnel equipment, will open later this July.
In addition to the workshop series, later this year the Kansas Rural Center will publish Tunnel to Table education materials, including a Resource Guide, Decision Making Tool, and virtual workshop to support beginning and advanced polytunnel production in Kansas.
Kansas growers with experience using polytunnels of any type are encouraged to complete the Kansas Rural Center’s Tunnel to Table growers survey, available at: www.kansasruralcenter.org/T2Tsurvey.
The Kansas Rural Center is a non-profit organization that since 1979 has promoted the long-term health of the land and its people through community-based research, education and advocacy that advances a sustainable farm and food system in Kansas that is ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially just.
For further information about the Tunnel to Table project and upcoming workshop opportunities – made possible with grant funding from the Kansas Department of Agriculture and Farm Aid – visit http://kansasruralcenter.org/t2t/ or contact Cole Cottin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (785) 992-4572.