Bruce Swob has been raising bees and harvesting honey for years. When the Great Bend Summer Street Stroll Farmer’s Market was formally organized a few years ago, he was one of the first vendors to sign up, attend the required training at a workshops in Hays, and become certified to accept senior vouchers through a program administered by the Barton County Health Department. During one workshop, he saw the kind of production that was possible in a high-tunnel. When he learned last year that he could apply for a grant to get a tunnel of his own, he didn’t need any further convincing. Mid-summer last year, he ordered and constructed his own.
Since then, Swob has been acquiring an education that is paying off deliciously. Ripe tomatoes by the first of June, several varieties of peppers (including the super-hot ghost pepper, with a Scoville rating of 1 million), abundant cucumbers,and more filled the 30-foot by 70-foot tunnel during Barton County Fair week, and he reported selling out of tomatoes at the market in less than a half-hour that week. These summer crops weren’t the first he’d pulled from the garden either. Prior to that, he’d harvested kale, lettuce, collard greens, carrots and more in the spring and last fall. And while it’s taken a lot of work initially, the results so far are driving him to learn and experiment more.
Experiment is the key word used when talking to high-tunnel gardeners. Most taking advantage of the grants administered through the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s EQIP program (Environmental Quality Incentive Program) have little to no experience with tunnel farming, and find there are surprises, both good and bad, to adjust to. Some pluses include amazing growth using far less water, extended growing and harvesting periods, and increased production in a compact space. Some minuses, however, is the problem of pollination, pest control, and replacing nutrients that are taken up in the increased harvests. Hail pierced the poly covering earlier this summer too, which has him working from a step ladder to seal holes with clear tape. He is already anticipating having to purchase a new cover for next year.
A key requirement of the high tunnel grant program is the structure needs to be built on land that has already been farmed. Swob lives in Great Bend, but his mother, Pat Swob, resides on their family farm in Rush County. She agreed to contract with him to allow the tunnel to be built there, and he became the first Barton County recipient. That was last July. As soon as he was accepted, he ordered and picked up the materials for his tunnel from a company in Missouri. He began setting posts and built it over the next month. Finally, by the end of August, it was complete and he started a variety of cool-season greens. He and Pat even set out a tomato plant in September, keeping it going until Christmas eve.
“Whatever the temperature is outside at night, that’s what it is inside,” he said. This lesson came in handy in the late winter. He and a friend started tomato seedlings Jan. 7, and by Feb. 18, they planted 150 seedlings in a double row, followed by another double row in March. Mild winter weather with higher than average temperatures were too tempting to pass up.
But in April, when the temperatures dipped low again, they covered the rows of seedlings with an insulated row cover.
Warmer weather returned in May, and by then he was training each plant up a length of twine attached to a wire running the length of the rafters. Careful pinching kept the plants in check and diverted energy to fruit production.
By June, Swob was picking his first mature tomatoes, and was one of the first to market with them. So early, in fact, the first couple weeks of the market, customers hardly knew to look for them, he said.
The twine is wrapped around a movable wire holder at the top, and as the plant grows taller, it can be slid along the wire and twine released to provide additional length. By the first week of July, all the plants in Swob’s tunnel were already 12-feet high and growing at a diagonal slant along the nine-foot high rafters.
Other plants sharing space with the tomatoes inside the tunnel included cucumbers, peppers, eggplant and tomatillos. Okra grew along the sides, along with a few other experimental plants.
Outside, the surrounding ground was planted in sweet corn, buzzing loudly with the activity of bees. A variety of squash and beans were also growing abundantly. Swob said his decisions about what plants were planted in the high tunnel real estate was based on their expected payoff at the farmer’s market. Every week, he hand picks tomatoes at the peak of ripeness, and has yet to return with anything. Once the farmer’s market season is over at the end of September, Swob anticipates having tomatoes for at least another month or two also.
Extending the season benefits both Swob and his customers, and that, in a nutshell, is the goal of the high tunnel program. (See related story on 3C.)