Hoop Houses Extend Growing Season

high tunnel, hoop house, growing vegetables in winter photo by Michelle Banks

Shortly after starting a Community Supported Agriculture membership program on her farm, Janet Mahala expanded production with a high tunnel.

Mahala, who runs an organic farm nestled in a small valley in the Tennessee Appalachian Mountains, extended her farm's growing season by several months.

Area residents pledged support to Laurel Creek Farm by purchasing produce year-round and in return receive farm-fresh, seasonal vegetables.

"This high tunnel is instrumental in being able to do that season extension to fill those boxes up really nicely," says Mahala.

Seasonal high tunnels, or hoop houses, are made of plastic or metal pipe and covered with sheeting, typically made of plastic. Easy to build, maintain and move, high tunnels help farmers provide fresh food for local communities--in some places as much as year round. Unlike greenhouses, they require no energy to heat, instead relying on natural sunlight to create favorable conditions for growing vegetables and other specialty crops.

The extended season also allows Mahala to participate in a farm-to-school program. She offers competitive prices and immediate, local food supplies throughout the school year.

Last year, Laurel Creek Farm supplied the Johnson County school system, which educates about 2,300 kids, with 900 pounds of organic potatoes that would have otherwise been purchased out of state.

NRCS, new high tunnel, extended growing season, hoop houses photo by Michelle Banks

Mahala may also supply the school system's lettuce needs next year by installing a second high tunnel through the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

"I was able to get 90 percent funding [from NRCS] as a beginning farmer, which was incredible," Mahala said. "I would not have the high tunnel if it had not been for that."

High tunnel cost-shares range from 75--90 percent. Mahala qualified as a beginning farmer since she has been in the business less than eight years.

"The high tunnel is something new and there are not a lot of people doing it in this area," says Jason Hughes, Johnson County district conservationist.