Traveling on C.R. 390, Rush County, towards Heartland Farm, a metallic gleam catches the eye, just north of the windbreak that protects the 1950s farmstead from the cool blasts Mother Nature delivers around this time of year, as fall matures and winter is fast at its heels.
In mid October, Ariel Aaronson-Eves, Heartland Farm’s organic farm manager, travelled to Missouri with a borrowed flatbed to pick up the components of a high-tunnel which will expand the growing season for the farm.
The 30 ft. by 48 ft. structure runs east to west, which is recommended in this area due to sun and wind considerations. Volunteers including two Maryland visitors, Eva Shpak and Gabe McKenna, with World-wide Opportunities in Organic Farming, (WWOOF), helped to turn over ground, dig a long trench where irrigation lines will be set, and assemble and set each of the ribs of the structure. Each rib was raised and set in place with a tractor. A wooden base and rail are bolted to the ribs where side walls can be attached. The walls will drop down to allow for ventilation when temperatures begin to heat up. End walls and roof will be made from a type of plastic sheeting that, once it has been stretched into place, will provide protection from wind, pests, drift from agricultural spraying, wildlife, and sudden drops in temperature.
With construction progressing, the structure will be completed this fall, and by early spring, production of leafy spring crops will begin, followed by an early planting of tomatoes, allowing the farm to better fulfill its commitment to the Dominican Sisters of Peace Motherhouse and bring produce early to Great Bend’s Summer Street Stroll Farmers’ Market next year, Aaronson-Eves said.
“This year, everyone at the market had late tomatoes,” she said. “There was certainly money to be made if you had them when everyone was looking for them.”
She took the farm manager position at the beginning of the spring, and finished her first year with the Great Bend market last month.
“Orange carrots work, but purple ones don’t, even though they are sweeter,” she said. And okra, she said, is a sure winner. Recipes and providing samples helped to sell some things, and raise awareness of different vegetables. With her recent experiences fresh in mind, work on the tunnel has her looking forward to the next season.
That’s exactly what the initiative hopes to encourage. By making market gardens more efficient and productive, more locally-grown produce will be made available to the public. This could lead to an overall increase in health and well-being, something that health educator Janelle Rose, with the Barton County Health Department, has been working on through the Health Department’s Chronic Disease Risk Reduction program.
Heartland Farm’s tunnel is one of a handful of tunnels in the county purchased through grants approved recently through the EQIP Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative overseen by the NRCS. Aaronson-Eves began working with District Conservationist Ron Klein with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). He oversees the program for Barton, Rush, and Pawnee counties.
Kline encourages those who are considering applying for the program to contact him. The cutoff for first funding under the general EQIP program is Nov. 20, but the High Tunnel Initiative is a special initiative, and as soon as grants are announced, he can begin the consideration process.
“Anyone can come in and sigh up at any time,” he said. But, he warns, funding is becoming more critical, and is affected when Congress is unable to pass a budget. In fact, high tunnel applications last year were the only EQIP grants approved. Inside Barton County, he can be contacted at 620-792-5329, or by email at Ron.Klein@ks.usda.gov. Outside Barton County, applicants should contact their local NRCS Office. In 2015, grants provided up to $7,000 for an approved high tunnel.
Applicant’s must prove eligibility for the program. Key is control of eligible land which includes cropland, rangeland, pastureland, non-industrial private forestland and other farm or ranch lands. Individuals, partnerships, legal entities and tribal organizations are all eligible.