High Desert High Tunnels
The Modoc High Tunnels Users Group met three times in 2016. The winter meeting in January was held indoors at the USDA Service Center in Alturas, California. A capacity crowd of about 40 enjoyed an informative talk on integrated pest management, a potluck (including greens grown in a local high tunnel), and networking. Two other meetings, one in the spring and one in December, were held at high tunnel operations and featured presentations by host farmers. The summer meeting was a planned “high tunnel raising” but the vendor missed delivery date of the tunnel parts both in July and for the rescheduled October meeting. Funds that would have gone for this meeting will be used to bring a speaker from out of the area for our winter 2017 meeting in February. In most areas, this project is on track and making a positive contribution to the community. The biggest concern to date is sustainability as the grant period draws to a close: a few volunteers have stepped forward to help out, but by far most people have preferred to enthusiastically attend a meeting scheduled and organized by someone else.
Objective 1: To research best practices for the use of high tunnels in Modoc County, California and surrounding areas by identifying at least seven producers in the two year project period who have increased yield or improved management through the use of high tunnels and asking them to document and present their strategies. Status: we have been able to gather only anecdotal information about the direct impact the the high tunnel group on production. Most producers are quite new at using high tunnels (0-3 years experience) and we haven’t found anyone who is interested in providing “before and after” data regarding production, although all producers contacted have stated that using their tunnels has radically altered the length of their season and thus their production.
Objective 2: To encourage the use of best practices through electronic and in-person information sharing in a producer-driven users group meeting held quarterly over two years. Status: We are perfectly on track for this, but in 2016 our summer quarterly meeting had to be postponed and then canceled, which was a shame because people were excited about participating in a “high tunnel raising” to help a fellow group member and get hands-on experience at raising a tunnel. We are hoping to be able to do this in 2017.
Objective 3: To document and report on the scope and characteristics of networking and partnerships created in the producers’ community as a result of participation in the users group. Status: We are having a hard time finding evidence that group members (who didn’t already know each other) are using the high tunnel users group for networking or partnerships. There are a number of other local-food initiatives (Farmers Markets, a Food Hub, and a Farm to School program) that bring producers together. We are finding that there is almost “networking overload” in the producer community – most producers just want to be outside working!
Objective 4: To quantify the impact that the adoption of best practices has on producers’ harvest, season length, and economic success via surveys, questionnaires, and continued participation in the users group. Status: as noted earlier, many producers do not track their high tunnel operation as a distinct enterprise on their farms, so most of the real evidence we have of this impact is qualitative via comments and meeting evaluation forms. As part of project wrap-up, we will be sending out paper and electronic questionnaires to anyone who has attended a users group meeting, and we will include that information in our final report.
Comments: The biggest challenges we have continue to be volunteer participation and inter-meeting communication amongst members of the group. The newsletters and meetings still seem like something done “for” the members, rather than “by” them. We see continued cultural and practical barriers to participation in electronic or non-in-person community to support members between meetings. We got rid of the online forum on our web page because it was not used. Our Facebook group page is still underused, but of course the many people in our area who don’t use Facebook are not able to participate. These two organizational issues (volunteer participation and group communication) are going to determine the longer-term character of the Users Group. It may end up being adopted by some of the other producer support initiatives in the area, but there is no commitment for that to happen.
Attendance at the Users Group Meetings remains at predicted levels (30-50 attendees), and evaluations show that those who attend find them useful and informative. Advertisements in local print media, posters throughout the region, press releases, and social media have been used to publicize the meetings, though most people rely on the local newspaper and the newsletter as well as word of mouth for information about meetings. The group has a web site (ModocHighTunnels.org), a Facebook page, and 65 people get the email newsletter while about 10 choose the paper version. Meetings are proving useful for producers looking for information, ideas, or advice as well as motivating interested people to contact the NRCS about their High Tunnel cost share programs. We are on budget except for the money allocated to the summer meeting that will be carried over to February’s meeting. The local food nonprofit is pitching in money and space for the winter meeting too, as it is a valued form of producer training. People really do love the meetings!
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
As noted, we have consistently enjoyed high attendance and very good feedback on in-person meetings, and low participation in electronic media (Facebook, newsletter contributions). We will be gathering data on how producers have changed their behavior or planning over the past two years, or have benefited from the high tunnels meetings, as part of our project wrapup and creation of our final report, after the final grant-funded meeting in February.
221 W. 8th Street
Alturas, CA 96101-3132
Office Phone: 5302338869