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Extension progam helps farmers adopt hoop-house conservation

by Special to The Commercial | December 18, 2020 at 2:59 a.m.
Stephanie Gaiser (right) and her son, Seth, place a cover for added protection over a raised bed planted with eggplant inside the family's seasonal high tunnel in Palmer, Alaska, in this May 23, 2014, file photo. Financial assistance for setting up high tunnels is available to producers through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

The use of high tunnel systems – commonly called “hoop houses” – is an increasingly popular conservation practice for farmers, said Dameion White, Extension associate for the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, but today is the last day to apply for an incentive program for the houses.

These structures protect crops from extreme weather and allow farmers to extend their growing seasons. They are available to producers with financial assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), according to a news release.

Producers can sign up for the program any time of the year. However, the cutoff date for 2021 funding is today. All applications will be reviewed and ranked to determine who will be accepted into the program for 2021.

Producers can pick up and submit an application at their local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service office. UAPB Small Farm Program Extension personnel can assist participants in filling out applications and selecting practices to apply for, if needed.

“With high tunnel systems, no summer is too short or winter too cold – farmers can continue to produce their crops,” White said. “High tunnel structures are usually made from steel and covered in polyethylene, and they are relatively easy to set up. They look like big greenhouses, but they do not have benches, and planting is directly in the soil.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, high tunnels allow farmers to plant crops earlier in the spring, later in the fall and sometimes, year-round. And because high tunnels prevent direct rainfall from reaching plants, farmers can use precise tools like drip irrigation to efficiently deliver water and nutrients to plants.

White said other benefits of high tunnel systems include: improved plant and soil quality, greater ability to control pests, reduced need for pesticides and protection from some pesticide drift.

According to the NRCS website, a number of soil health practices can be used in high tunnels, including cover crops and crop rotations, which also prevent erosion, suppress weeds, increase soil water content and break pest cycles.

Farmers can apply for this and other practices year-round. Payments are made after conservation practices and activities identified in an EQIP plan are implemented. Contracts can last up to 10 years.

“Socially disadvantaged, beginning and limited-resource farmers and Indian tribes are eligible for an increased payment rate and may receive an advance payment of up to 50 percent to purchase materials and services to implement conservation practices in their EQIP plan,” White said.

He said payments for the high tunnel system are based on square footage. Last year, for example, historically-underserved farmers received a rate of $3.45 per square foot. Most of these systems were 100 feet by 40 feet – a total of 4,000 square feet. The payment received was calculated using 4,000 total square feet at a rate of $3.45, resulting in a total payment of $13,800 per hoop house.

Details: Karen Lee, UAPB Small Farm Program, at leek@uapb.edu or (870) 575-7225.

The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff offers all of its Extension and Research programs and services without discrimination.

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