Jumping Through Hoops to Grow Cold Weather Produce

11/24/2012 7:00 AM
By Teresa McMinn Southeastern Pa. Correspondent

COLLEGEVILLE, Pa. — It just makes sense to grow more food on less land for a longer period of time, said Daniel Yildirim after he learned to shape a metal pole into a semicircle.

Yildirim, of Doylestown in Bucks County, Pa., and about a dozen other folks recently were at The Longview Center for Agriculture in Collegeville, Montgomery County, Pa., for a workshop on how to build, maintain and use high and low tunnels to grow produce in cold weather.

The event, geared toward commercial produce growers, was part of a series led by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, or PASA, and Greener Partners, a nonprofit organization that provides educational programs focused on food and farming.

The session started with a tour of a high tunnel, or hoop house.

“I think it’s a great way to keep making money in the winter time,” said Yildirim, who worked on a tomato farm in Arizona and hopes to secure a job in agriculture and operate his own farm one day. “It’s efficient land use.”

Indeed. From November to May last year, Longview raised about $18,000 in retail produce, said Rick Fonda, the farm’s specialty crops manager.

Materials and labor to build one 30-by-96-foot hoop house costs about $10,000, he said. Additionally, plastic covering would need to be replaced about four times over roughly 20 years at a cost of an additional $15,000, he said.

But the structures offer an early and late extension to the growing season, Fonda said.

“You could make a decent living on one acre with several hoop houses because you’re growing greens when they’re most in demand,” he said.

The downside to a hoop house is the upfront cost and potential storm destruction. Hurricane Sandy caused about $700 in damage to one of Longview’s hoop houses, he said. Even so, the math means profit for growers, he said.

“I don’t think there is much of a downside. ... You can make a lot of money” raising produce that can go “very early to market,” Fonda said. “For a larger farm with a big CSA, it’s also great.”

Mark Nuneviller, production manager at Longview, demonstrated how to build a low tunnel, which would require about $315 in startup costs to buy a hoop bender and other materials.

Supplies and labor to construct 100 feet of low tunnel total about $132, he said.

Cold hardy crops that can be grown in a low tunnel, including kale, broccoli and lettuce, can easily generate enough revenue to offset the expenses, he said.

Collegeville residents Renie Swartley and her daughter, Audrey Swartley, were at the workshop to learn more about the feasibility of expanding their Gilbertsville-based business Fun-E Farm T.O.O., which provides equine and farm related activities for children and adults.

“We’re looking at doing a hoop house,” Renie Swartley said. “We’re learning from the ground up.”

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