With short growing seasons, utilizing high tunnels for season extension can be a sustainable strategy to increase farm profit and yield. However, despite proven merits, many immigrant farmers are slow to adopt the use of high tunnels. Language barriers, in addition to lack of time and access to resource networks makes adoption of high tunnels difficult and risky. Sustainability relies on equitable distribution of knowledge and resources and yet for many immigrant farmers, classroom settings, paper handouts, or information on a website are not viable means toward lasting changes in farm practices.
Through a hands-on peer-learning format that pairs ag professionals, university researchers, NRCS staff, and immigrant farm leaders, this project will establish replicable methods of effectively engaging immigrant farmers while also increasing the knowledge and adoption of financially and environmentally sustainable practices. This project will conduct hands-on field days and workshops at demonstration/research five sites (3 farms, 1 university and 1 non-profit food hub) to highlight the use of high tunnels and cover crops, document change in profit and showcase best practices to help encourage more immigrant farmers incorporate high tunnels and cover crops in their farm systems.
This project will:
-Develop farmer interview to capture high tunnel background history, management practices, lessons learned, benefits, advantages, disadvantages, and costs of high tunnels to inform a collection of case studies that farmers can use to decide if high tunnels are a good decision for their farm and if so, what kind, type, etc.
-Interview will ask about harvest times, yield amounts, labor inputs, total profit, soil health, etc. and will be compiled in a compendium of high-tunnel case studies gathered through the farmer interviews.
-Conduct cover crop demonstrations at five sites: The Good Acre, Holistic Health Farms, Hmong American Farming Association, Cala Farm
-Create high tunnel resources in Hmong and Spanish with input from farmers.
-Hold six hands-on field day workshops: Holistic Health Farms, Cala Farm, The Good Acre, Hmong American Farming Association (HAFA), Santa Rosa Farm, and Thao Gardens Farm.
-Partner with FSA and NRCS to individually sign up farmers for EQIP high tunnel funding.
-Develop replicable immigrant farm engagement strategies that involve peer-learning and hands-on workshops.
The research to date is grouped into two categories:
- Cover Crop Research
- High Tunnel Farmer Interview
Cover Crop Research
Charlotte Thurston, University of Minnesota Applied Plant Science Graduate Student, is leading high tunnel cover crop research at all farm sites.
Main Goals for 2017– Implementing cover crop demonstrations/research trials in three high tunnels owned by participating farmers in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Major Activities to achieve goals:
Early Spring through Summer–
- Andrew Bernhardt and Charlotte Thurston met with farmers and visited farm sites to discuss current high tunnel and cover crop use and find spaces in on-farm tunnels for cover crop planting and demonstration.
Planting cover crops in high tunnels–
- August 28, 2017
- Seeded cover crops at Page and Flowers farm, St. Paul, MN with urban farmer Tim Page
- Seeded 3 stands of cover crops: red clover, a mix of hairy vetch, tillage radish, and winter rye, and a mix of winter pea and winter rye.
- Sampled soil to establish baseline soil nutrient levels and texture/quality.
- Installed temperature sensors to monitor high tunnel temperature fluctuations throughout the season.
- See attached map for visual of high tunnel space seeded
- August 30, 2017
- Seeded same 3 cover crop stands at HAFA farm in Rosemount, MN with the HAFA staff, main collaborators are Mark Zumwinkle and Janssen Hang.
- Sampled soil and installed sensors as at Page and Flowers farm.
- See attached map for visual of high tunnel space
- November 4, 2017
- Seeded Same three cover crop stands at Cala farm in Turtle Lake, WI with farmer Rodrigo Cala
- Late planting due to lack of high tunnel space earlier in the season, tomatoes and seedlings were the previous priority in these tunnel spaces.
- Sampled soil and installed sensors at at previous farm sites.
- Also put in low tunnel hoops and row-cover over all cover crops for added winter protection. It was late enough in the season by the time of this planting to perform this task.
- See attached map for visual of high tunnel space
- Home Demonstration Site, The Good Acre high tunnel, Oct. 19, 2017
- Seeded all three mixes in plots in one bed, then seeded red clover in bare patches in other beds, where cash crops have been harvested.
- The plastic cover will be removed from the tunnel over the winter, so no row cover will be installed at this site. Plants will experience unprotected (standard) winter field conditions. Cover crops will be available for demonstration purposes in the spring.
(3 weeks after planting cover crops, returned to see how many had germinated and were growing)
- Sept. 19 2017- Page and Flowers/Holistic Health Farms
- Placed two 0.5 m quadrats randomly in each cover crop plot. Counted number of cover crop plants (each species, if a mix) and number of weeds.
- Dug up two legume cover crop plants per plot, both had nodules (formed symbiotic relationship with rhizobia bacteria and were fixing nitrogen)
- Some patchy growth of cover crops due to necessary human traffic (harvest of remaining cash crops)
- Sept. 22 2017- HAFA
- Same sampling procedure with same quadrats
- Same procedure for checking for nodulation, all plants dug up had nodules
- Excellent stands here, dense growth of cover crops and uniform watering/germination
- Cala Farm- No stand counts because the cover crops were planted too late to really germinate this fall, most will germinate in the spring.
First Nodulation and Nitrogen Fixation Sampling–
- Nov. 3, 2017- Page and Flowers/Holistic Health Farms
- Sampled two legume cover crop plants and two reference plants per plot (to count nodules, dry biomass, and measure for fixed nitrogen)
- Installed low hoops and row-cover over cover crops, leaving a center gap where Tim Page has planted winter greens and established an aisle way
- Nov. 9, 2017- HAFA
- Same legume sampling procedure as at P and F.
- Installed low hoops and row cover over all cover crops.
- Cala Farm- No sampling because the cover crops were planted too late to germinate this fall, most will germinate in the spring.
- Nodules were counted in the lab for all sampled roots of legume plants.
- Plant shoots and roots were then dried and will be weighed and analyzed for nitrogen content in the winter/spring of 2018.
Future Planned Assessments and Activities for 2018:
- 1 Winter and 2 Spring samplings (same procedure as in Fall) will be performed to quantitatively assess nodulation and nitrogen plant content from legume plant samples for each cover crop trial/mix in Page and Flowers and HAFA tunnels. Cala farm will be sampled at the spring timepoints when the cover crops have begun to grow.
- Following the last spring nitrogen assessment, cover crops will be terminated by mowing and tilling with on-farm equipment and farmers will plant their spring/summer cash crops in the high tunnels.
High Tunnel Farmer Interviews
Instead of simply collecting data on sales and production/yield – we decided to expand this grant objective. We now plan on developing a high-tunnel interview template and conducting interviews with partner farmers that will compile insights on each farm’s high tunnel that also includes profit and production information as well as info on high tunnel model built at each farm, management practices, lessons-learned, mistakes to avoid, and other insights that farmers can ‘share’ with other farmers that are interested in exploring high tunnels but are not sure and could use help in making an informed decision. These interviews collected into case studies will be made available in multiple languages.
Colin Jones, University of Minnesota Department of Horticulture Graduate Research Assistant, is leading the farmer high tunnel interviews and case study document. We have drafted the interview and are scheduling interviews in April 2018.
Spring Semester 2018 – Internship work plan
- February: Draft & review interview questions
- March: Finalize interview questions and schedule interviews
- April: Interview farmers
- May: Write and prepare collection of case studies
- Continue any necessary work on case studies into summer.
- Attend/volunteer at workshops/field days throughout 2018
Educational & Outreach Activities
Planning is starting for the scheduled 2018 high tunnel workshops/demonstration days. We will hold 6 hands-on workshops utilizing the Skill-Share Model where we will ask farmers to bring knowledge, experience and questions to engage in peer-to-peer learning and conversations with fellow farmers. Non-project-partner farmers that attend can earn an honorarium to compensate them for their time and travel. We distributed high tunnel informational materials at the 2018 Emerging Farmers Conference along with a sign-up sheet for any farmer interested in learning more about high tunnel production at upcoming 2018 workshops. These names have been added to our farmer contact list and will be emailed info about planned workshops.
As a result of grant activities in planning farmer education programming, a natural partnership formed with Minnesota Food Association’s Laura Heeden, programs manager for MFA’s Farmer Education Program. Instead of planning parallel programming covering similar topics, we have started coordinating workshop planning which should have the result of increasing outreach and impact.
The first workshops is planned for Sunday April 29 from 2-4pm at Tim Page’s urban high tunnel, Holistic Health Farms aka Page & Flowers farm. Tim and his partner Cherry will demonstrate how they get the most out of their high tunnel in the spring to maximize yield and profit. They will discuss which crops do best in early spring high tunnel production, such as leafy greens, bok choy, and kale and how to maintain soil health with cover crops. They will showcase their hydro/aquaponics set-up as well as their home-scale high tunnel design: mini-hoopers, a modular portable high tunnel for small plot sizes at about 8 feet wide and 6 feet tall that can easily accommodate a variety of bed sizes for home gardens and urban farms. Skillshare topics will include:
- Preparing your high tunnel for spring production
- Selecting and growing crops ideal for spring high tunnel production
- Deciding what size and type of high tunnel is best for you
- Using cover crops to maintain soil health in high tunnels
- Incorporating aquaponics & hydroponic systems in high tunnels
The second event will be held at Rodrigo Cala’s farm on July 16, 2018. This field day will be coordinated in collaboration with Vivian Wauters highlighting her research at Rodrigo Cala’s farm.
The third event will be held in August (specific date TBD) at The Good Acre and its high tunnels. The first half of the day will showcase the annual and perennial crops in our high tunnels as well as the new fertigation system that we will be installing this spring as part of a MDA Demonstration Grant. The second half of the day will be in The Good Acre’s classroom, where we will partner with FSA and NRCS staff to help any farmer interested in applying for EQIP high tunnel funding do so in person before the August deadline.
The fourth, fifth and sixth events will take place in September at three partner farms: HAFA farm site, Thao Gardens Farm and Santa Rosa Farm. The agenda for these three farm demonstration field days will be identical and farmers will be encouraged to attend the one event that is most convenient for them.
The seventh event will take place in December at The Good Acre’s classroom where we will once again partner with FSA and NRCS to do a hands-on sign up day for EQIP funding.
Two years of high-tunnel cover crop trials and and high-tunnel production research at five sites (three on-farm sites, the University and The Good Acre) gathering data on changes in soil health, yield and profit, which will be showcased to 20 small-scale and immigrant farmers via field days and workshops. Long term increase in farm profitability and soil health through improved utilization of high tunnels and strong grower networks.
Hands-on peer-learning based curriculum developed with farmer input from 20 farmers attending six workshops. Impact: improved methods for connecting educators with immigrant growers allowing greater information exchange and improved growing practices.
Access to EQIP high tunnel funding with sixteen farmers signing up and ten new high tunnels purchased and built. Impact: Increased profitability for farmers able to access alternative season markers and increased number of high tunnels allow a greater variety of produce to be grown locally in northern climate.
New models of farmer-educator-researcher partnerships that foster mutual learning and project development. Permanent farmer-to-farmer peer-learning networks that sustain information sharing, collaboration, and on-farm learning.