Wednesday, October 27, 2010

USDA NRCS Chief Dave White Has “High Tunnel” Vision

L to R: Director Kate Collier, Farm Manager Steve Vargo, Farm Manager Adrianna Vargo, Director Marisa Vrooman,
USDA NRCS Chief Dave White, Communications Manager Emily Manley. Image credit: NRCS.
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Chief Dave White sprouted energy and enthusiasm when he stopped by our Maple Hill Farm for a look at the Local Food Hub’s seasonal high tunnel last week. He not only greeted our staff warmly but also planted the seeds of a high-energy discussion on future networking and partnering opportunities.

When Chief White parked his truck on the drive Friday afternoon, he quickly made it clear that he had done his homework about our operations here in Charlottesville. He joined Virginia NRCS State Conservationist Jack Bricker, local District Conservationist Kory Kirkland, and other NRCS field staff on site for a closer look at an operational high tunnel.

For the uninitiated, high tunnels are portable structures that can increase the availability of locally-grown produce in a conservation-friendly way. Made of ribs of plastic or metal pipe covered with a layer of plastic sheeting, high tunnels are assembled on site and can be easily maintained. Unlike greenhouses, they require no energy, relying on natural sunlight to modify the climate inside to create more favorable conditions for vegetable and other specialty crops.

Virginia NRCS provided about $200,000 in funding for 63 high tunnels through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and EQIP Organics programs. We received EQIP funding to install our high tunnel, completed in early September of this year, and are already using it to extend our growing season and offer crops that are in high demand for a much longer period of time.

The chief’s visit coincided with the one-year anniversary of the highly-popular pilot program and he was looking for some solid feedback on the conservation benefits of this pilot program. Standing amid the mesclun mix, Chief White quizzed farm managers Steve and Adrianna Vargo about their experience with the high tunnel and conservation benefits such as reducing pesticide use, keeping vital nutrients in the soil, conserving water, extending the growing season, and increasing yields.

He and other NRCS field staff were also energized about our use of the high tunnel as a teaching tool to engage participating producers in conservation and organic production. We held one class on season extension techniques and tools in mid-September and are planning other offerings in the near future.
Established as part of the USDA “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative, the high tunnel pilot program is an example of innovative approaches to sustainable agriculture. Where high tunnels are used year-round, they provide steady income to farmers — a significant benefit to owners of small farms and to limited resource and organic producers.

NRCS District Conservationist Kory Kirkland was extremely helpful in walking us through the application process to secure the high tunnel this year. Virginia NRCS will offer the high tunnel practice again in 2011 and will be partnering with us to offer more information about this and other conservation practices available to Charlottesville-area producers.

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