Beyond Season Extension: High Tunnels for Season Creation and Economic, Community, and Environmental Sustainability

Final Report for ENC12-134

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2012: $75,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:
Tom Redfern
Rural Action
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Project Information

Abstract:
Beyond Season Extension; Season Creation The Green Edge Model for Winter Growing

The goal of Rural Action’s Project “Beyond Season Extension: High Tunnels for Season Creation and Economic, Community, and Environmental Sustainability” was to create stable, year round, agricultural production, income, and employment opportunities for Appalachian Ohio farms, increasing  local food availability and profitability.  This was accomplished by creating the Season Creation Professional Development Program as a way to provide Extension Educators, Natural Resource Conservationists and other agricultural educators with tool kit written and electronic materials a thorough look at a working replicable model of winter high tunnel production, and an opportunity to consult with experienced practitioners.  The project included a series of workshops to educate farmers, educators, and interested stakeholders on the “Season Creation” model of winter production created by Green Edge Organic Farm located in Amesville, OH. The teachers were the Farmers involved including the owners and experienced employees.  SARE funding was used by Rural Action to give the farmers the support and professional materials they needed to provide a high level educational experience.

From 2012-2014 ten Season Creation Professional Development Program Trainings have been held. 206 participants attended including 100 farmers, 14 interested community members, and 92 educators. Among the educators were 14 NRCS employees, 14 OSU extension educators, 23 nonprofit staff members, and 4 AmeriCorps members. As a result of this project 50 farmers are now incorporating the Season Creation Model into their production strategies. 100 Educators are now sharing tool kits and knowledge of the Season Creation model as a viable method of year round production and have added trainings based on this model to their educational portfolio. This project has also created a supplemental income for Green Edge Garden as they are now equipped with the materials to continue offering trainings and workshops to the surrounding agricultural community. This will sustain the educational opportunity funded by SARE.

Project Objectives:

Through this project Rural Action sought to train at least 80 individuals including educators, farmers, and interested community members in Green Edge Organic’s Season Creation model of year round production using high tunnels. This was achieved.  We created written materials, presentations, and toolkits that strengthened Green Edge Organic Gardens as educators in the community, and strengthened a broad regional community of interested stakeholders, including educators, farmers, and interested community members.

  • 206 individuals trained directly at the Season Creation workshops

    • 100 farmers attended and received training on the Season Creation model.
    • 92 Educators received the training and materials to thoughtfully educate on the season creation model.
    • 14 interested community members were educated on season creation as an aspect of our regions food system.
    • 12 farmers received direct consulting to increase production and profitability.
    • 7 NGO’s received production and marketing related consultation on grant funded high tunnel production and educational projects.
    • 2 school gardening projects received consultations on season extension techniques.
    • 1 OSU Extension Agent received a private tour and training with 6 clients.

  • Written materials/ toolkits

    • A branded Season Creation logo and theme.                                        
    • An evolving power point presentation available as a high quality print out, and in electronic form to all attendees. These were available in a basic and advanced form.
    • A folder of materials including printed hard copies both directly and indirectly related to the Green Edge Season Creation model.
    • A decorative Season Creation “Winter Planting and Harvesting Calendar.”
    • A wire bound 33 page manual “Season Creation; The Green Edge Model of Winter Growing.”
    • A decorative poster size farm map.

Introduction:

Rural Action is a membership based nonprofit focused on asset based economic development in Appalachian Ohio. It works to address regional issues such as poverty, environmental degradation, and weakening community involvement through programming in environmental education, zero waste initiatives, watershed restoration, sustainable forestry, and sustainable agriculture. The sustainable agriculture program supports agriculture that is good for the community, economy, and environment through focus areas such as food hub development, online branding and marketing, healthy food access, farm to institution, peer to peer education, and technical assistance for farmers.

Rural Action Sustainable Agriculture has provided education on season extension since 2009 and has identified a need for farmers to adopt growing methods that make year round production possible in order to reach lucrative off season markets, stabilize income and make year round employment possible. Rural Action is membership based and works with a broad range of stakeholders; Kip and Becky Rondy, owners of Green Edge Organic Gardens, are Rural Action members and longtime partners in our sustainable agriculture work. They have created a successful and replicable model, which we termed “Season Creation”, for year round growing in the Appalachian region. This SARE PDP project included general season extension techniques, including all four seasons, year round marketing, Community Supported Agriculture, economics, and summer high tunnel production. The main focus however was winter production inside of unheated, gabled high tunnels. This included reasons for winter production, infrastructure guidelines, use of infrastructure, schedule and selection of crops, covering, irrigation, managing crop threats, harvesting handling and storage, marketing and sales, employee roles and management, certifications, food safety, and equipment suppliers.  All of this information was made available to both workshop attendees as well as attendees at additional offsite trainings that the Rondy’s conducted. Materials included a professional high quality folder of all of the materials printed out, two informational posters, and a manual. These materials were also given in electronic form to interested educators on a loaded flash drive.

Green Edge Organic Gardens is located in Amesville, OH. They produce organic mushrooms, micro greens, and a diverse range of produce, relying strongly on the use of high tunnels for year round production. They generally employ 12 full time equivalent positions, and offer four summer intern positions. They are recognized in Ohio and Central Appalachia as leaders for their work in season extension and have a reputation as a replicable, real world example of a successful model for rural farmers.  This two year SARE PDP partnership with Green Edge Organic Gardens has supported them in educating both farmers and agricultural professionals on their Season Creation model. It has given them a viable profit center based around there intellectual capital, i.e. they have gained experience as peer to peer educators and have gained expertise in sharing there model. They are now sought after throughout the region as educators. Rural Action is committed to continue to partner with Green Edge to give them graphic, curricular and development support as they continue to expand their educational programming to include more and more aspects of their whole farm system as well as to reach a larger audience.

  • Background on Rural Action: Working on asset based economic development. We define sustainable agriculture as agriculture that benefits the community, economy, and environment.
  • Green edge background: Green Edge created a model that is a replicable but not a widely used strategy. Part of their farms mission is to positively impact their region and their world. They wanted to create an educational profit center around their methods that would support them in sharing their knowledge in an economically sustainable way.

The goal of the North Central SARE Professional Development program is to supply resources to build awareness and skills related to sustainable agriculture concepts. This is done through both competitive grants and State Coordinators.  Rural Actions “Beyond Season Extension” project was a competitive grant that also created and supplied professional materials that are currently being used by Ohio State Coordinator Mike Hogan.

The area of sustainable agriculture awareness that was focused on was sharing successful economic models of high tunnel production with both NRCS and Extension professionals, as well as with the many Non-Governmental Organizations, and volunteer groups that are now using high tunnels specifically, and season extension in general as a way to address a variety of economic, educational and hunger issues. The last two farm bills have included the support of the construction of high tunnels through the EQUIP program as a priority. This Farm Bill program gave us a chance to use SARE PDP resources to address the following issues:

  • Large scale USDA Farm Bill investment through the EQUIP program for the construction of unheated high tunnel structures, without relevant information on winter production for Agricultural Educators and Natural Resource Conservation Service staff.

    • Seasonal limitations of specialty crop production in the Midwest region.
    • Loss of mid-size growers, < $500,000 in the Midwest region.
    • Lack of twelve month income/ way to reach markets year round for specialty crop growers.
    • Lack of knowledge of general formulaic models of winter month high tunnel production.
    • Lack of knowledge of site specific construction and siting techniques for 12 month production.
    • Lack of production budgets and specific economic information for winter production.
    • Lack of specific information around marketing for winter production.
    • Lack of horticultural knowledge around winter production.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Kip Rondy

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Objective:
Description:

Methods

The Season Creation Professional Development Program included a series of eight workshops, four introductory and four advanced. The workshops were taught by Green Edge Gardens owners Becky and Kip Rondy as well as farm manager Dan Kneier, and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) manager Miranda Kridler, utilizing a peer-to-peer education model.  This included on farm and classroom components. The on farm component included a tour of Green Edge Gardens ten high tunnels and infrastructure such as start house and packing room, as well as information pertaining to their growing schedule and field and crop management. The attendees were broken into two groups, one group went with Kip Rondy and learned about infrastructure, siting and irrigation, and the other group went with farm manager Dan Kneier and learned about production related issues including harvest, watering, plant location and soil fertility.  The second half of the day was spent in the classroom where Green Edge presented on their marketing strategy including the evolution of their business, information on their marketing models, and how they value their crop. Time was also given for workshop attendees to ask questions. All participants received a toolkit including the complete PowerPoint presentation, handouts on infrastructure, a planting guide, a handout on crop income, and a map of Green Edge Organic Gardens. Evaluations were collected from all workshop participants to gauge the success of the program and relevance of the information presented to the attendees. The workshops were advertised via Rural Action’s website, www.ohiofoodshed.org, press release to local media, Ohio State University Extension, Natural Resource Conservation Service, and targeted invitations.

In addition to the on farm workshops Green Edge Organic Gardens gave abbreviated tours and offsite presentations on several occasions. This included presentations to the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association conference in 2014 and 2015. This utilized materials created through this SARE PDP project and reached 125 conference attendees. Thirty five people were reached at the 2015 Ohio Produce Growers Marketing Association conference in 2015, and 60 attendees were reached at the 2015 West Virginia small farm conference.

Outreach and Publications

SARE funding has allowed Rural Action to create several publications on the Season Creation Model including a manual, “Season Creation; the Green Edge Model of Winter Growing”, a Winter Planting and Harvesting Calendar (poster format), a map of Green Edge Organic Gardens (poster format), and ten minute how-to film on the model. The book includes sections on why to grow in the winter, infrastructure guidelines and usage (including schedule and selection of crops, covering guidelines, and water and irrigation), managing crop threats, harvesting, and handling and storage. It also includes information on how they operate their farm business such as marketing and sales, employee roles and management, certifications and food safety, and additional resources on high tunnel and equipment suppliers. The book includes color pictures and diagrams showing how Green Edge lays out their high tunnels and places their crops.

The winter Planting and Harvesting Calendar includes scheduled direct seed, seed start, transplant, and harvest for 15 crops that Green Edge grows in high tunnels from September through May. The calendar also diagrams the crop covers that Green Edge uses and explains the temperature requirements for each cover.

The Map of Green Edge Gardens shows all buildings including the micro green and indoor mushroom facilities, start house, packing house and post-harvest facilities. It also shows the placement of high tunnels, hoop house, pump house, water tank, ponds, streams, fencing, crop fields and raised bed gardens.

Rural Action promoted the Season Creation Model and the Professional Development Program through community outreach, social media, press releases and partner organizations including OSU Extension and the NRCS. The term “Season Creation” along with a customized logo, has become recognized regionally and has created recognizable value added brand for both Green Edge and the concept of winter production.  Events and conferences attended included the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association Conference, West Virginia Small Farm College, Ohio Produce Marketing Association, Perry County Farmers Market Cooperative, Mid-Ohio Growers Association, Ohio Small Farm Institute, West Virginia University Extension, and Ohio State University Franklin County Extension.

Outcomes and impacts:

From 2012-2014 eight Season Creation Professional Development Program Trainings have been held. 206 participants attended including 100 farmers, 14 interested community members, and 92 educators. Among the educators were 14 Natural Resource Conservation employees, 14 Ohio State extension educators, 23 nonprofit staff members, and 4 AmeriCorps members. Workshop attendees provided positive feedback, particularly on the level of detail provided to explain Green Edge’s infrastructure and business model.

In addition to the workshops previously reported, four workshops were help from March to December 2014. (Jan 2014 was also included in 2013 report). They can be summarized as follows:

  • January 23rd, 2014

    • 14 participants, 10 Educators including: four NRCS staff, one Master Gardener (Fairfield County), two CFI, 1 Mid-Ohio Foodbank
    • 25 evaluation score (scale of 1-10)
    • Quotes from evaluation:

      • “Personnel are passionate about their jobs. Excellent and well-presented Presentation”.
      • “Informative and knowledgeable. Very willing to answer questions”.

    • March 13th, 2014 Introductory Workshop

      • 12 Participants, 3 educators
      • 3 evaluation score
      • Quotes from evaluation:

        • “This information will support my presentation on season extension for Ross County Master Gardeners”.
        • “In one day (6 hours actually) I learned a wealth of information on winter growing and high tunnels. I couldn’t have received this much information anywhere else”.

      • June 20th, 2014 Introductory Workshop

        • 9 Participants, 5 educators including: one OSU Extension educator
        • 5 evaluation rating
        • Quotes from evaluation:

          • “Lots of great information well presented. The farm visit was important. The presentation materials were second to none. Diverse and energetic speakers were a pleasure”.
          • “Lots of great information-both for production and for business administration”.

        • November 13th, 2014 Advanced Workshop

          • 61 participants, 23 educators including: one CFI COMcorps, five West Virginia Value Chain Cluster initiative , 3 AmeriCorps, 2 Franklinton Gardens, Columbus Ohio employees
          • Quotes from evaluation:

            • “Practical, inspirational, realistic”.
            • “I will share the information about marketing and business development with our clients at Value Chain Cluster Initiative in West Virginia”.

          • December 11th, 2014 Advanced Workshop

            • 12 participants, 2 educators
            • 75 evaluation rating
            • Quotes from evaluation:

              • “I will put up a high tunnel and start house as part of my permaculture plan”.
              • “Very informative, good presentations on-site with relatable hosts”.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Rural Action’s project has empowered local producers to improve the success of their farms by adapting the Season Creation Model. Growers are now equipped with knowledge on how to construct and manage high tunnels and can access markets for specialty crops in the winter season. Allowing them to employ full time staff. Producers are also able to better predict expenses, budget for year round growing,  and are informed on several marketing models such as CSA, retail, wholesale and broker, with real world examples of how they have been successful for Green Edge Organic Gardens. These tools make Midwest farmers more competitive in the market, reducing the loss of mid-range farmers (less than $500,000) that has been observed in the past decades.  The adaption of the Season Creation Model also increases the availability of local product year-round, increasing feasibility of local purchasing by the consumer that strengthens the local economy and reduces the impact of agricultural distribution systems on the environment.

Our project has created a network between farmers and educators, building the framework for the continuing education on the Season Creation model.  92 educators and 100 farmers now have access to printed materials with details on infrastructure, planting schedules, and marketing information that they can reference and share with peers. These materials along with our manual “Season Creation; the Green Edge Model of Winter Growing” provide a high level of detail on all aspects of the model and will continue to be made available to those interested by Rural Action. The project has also empowered Green Edge Organic Gardens to continue offering workshops on their farm. As a result of this project they have presentations, toolkits, and marketing materials, along with staff trained in presenting educational workshops that can be used to continue offering workshops in the future, providing them with an additional source of income.

The Season Creation manual is currently being used by used by SARE State Coordinator Mike Hogan and others including NRCS personnel to educate their clients.

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

SARE PDP funding has allowed for the creation of a network between farmers and educators and has opened up the opportunity for Rural Action to create additional educational programs in the future. For example, Green Edge Organic Gardens also implements successful irrigation strategies and operates production of mushrooms and micro greens specialty crops. As they recognize the value of these educational opportunities to the local agricultural community, and also the additional income these workshops could provide for their farm, they express interest in partnering with Rural Action to create additional programs. As a result of this partnership Green Edge Organic Gardens has also been able to offer consulting services for local organizations and farms. For example, they recently consulted with Community Food Initiatives on creating school gardens. Workshop attendees also provided feedback on additional workshops they would like to see from Green Edge Organic Gardens. The most common responses were the following:

  • Hands on high tunnel construction
  • Operating a CSA program
  • Soil management
  • Marketing
  • Food Safety
  • Small Equipment
  • Disease management and pest control
  • Irrigation
  • Planting
  • Staff and Intern management and training
  • Harvesting
  • Packaging
  • Micro green production

This SARE PDP project gave Green Edge the experience and the positive reputation to continue education as a valuable profit center for their farm, and a valuable resource for the region.

Future Recommendations

Rural Action Sustainable Agriculture recommends that NC SARE continues to follow the evolution of the Season Creation Model and its impact on agriculture throughout the region. We also recommend a continuation of the focus on supplying market based result information to EQUIP investments such as high tunnels and organics. We recommend that issues of fertility and crop rotation be followed over time, including the use of cover crops inside high tunnels. We suggest that unheated production systems such as the gabled high tunnels used by Green Edge be compared to hydroponic systems in terms of profitability and sustainability. We suggest that research be done on the concentration of sugars in winter versus summer production.

We recommend that the SARE PDP program continue to utilize successful farm and farmer based systems as a way to provide educators with real world examples they can share with clients.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.