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Tunneling in
High tunnel pioneer featured at Great Bend farmers market workshop
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Jay Sleichter, Clay Center, shared marketing tips and information about high-tunnel farming Friday morning. He was the keynote speaker at the regional farmers market workshop sponsored by the Kansas Department of Agriculture, held at Great Bends Trinity Lutheran Church. - photo by VERONICA COONS, Great Bend Tribune

Great Bend farmers market vendors didn’t have far to go this year to get up to speed on the latest programs available to help serve their customers and promote locally grown food. The Kansas Department of Agriculture chose the city as one of its five regional locations for Kansas Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program Certified Farmer Training.
Jay Sleichter of rural Clay Center was the morning keynote speaker. He is also a teacher in Clay Center. He took a personal day to be able to attend the conference in order to give back some of what he’s learned about high-tunnel farming over the past decade. Sleichter was an early adopter of high-tunnel technology, and shared how their use has shaped his family business — Jay’s Jellies, Produce and More — as well as marketing and pricing tips that have added to his success.
The self-described “micro farmer” grows vegetable on his four-acre property, of which about 3/4 of an acre is actually in production.
“I’d plant more, but my wife won’t let me have the front yard,” he said.
He became interested when he noticed another seller was bringing tomatoes to his farmer’s market in June. That producer was growing out of a greenhouse, something Sleichter couldn’t begin to consider at the time due to the cost of entry. But, the concept stuck with him. He attended the Great Plains Growers Conference soon after and was introduced to the high tunnel concept, and began experimenting.

Many ways to make a tunnel
Sleichter shared how he built his first high tunnel from PVC pipes, vinyl, and spare lumber. Other experiments included using cattle panels covered with vinyl, and later he built a gothic-style tunnel from chain-link fence rails he bent into shape. As his growing skills and amount of ground put into production increased, he built more tunnels. Some he has purchased second hand, and he’s even come up with a method of sliding the tunnels on rails from one plot of ground to another in order to maximize the benefit he receives from successively planted plots.
“At the time when we started, there weren’t many people in our area doing this,” he said.
Sleichter has not used the EQIP program because when he started using high tunnels, he didn’t qualify because his ground was not existing cropland. Also, there were few who even understood what he was inquiring about.
“They’ve changed the rules a lot since then,” he said. “If I were to do it again, I would definitely do it.”
Sleichter has posted videos and instructions about the tunnels he’s built online, and receives emails from growers all over the world thanking him and sharing with him how they’ve adapted the idea to their area. He recently heard from a man in Africa who is planning to use some of his ideas to build a tunnel there. He has also been featured in Farm Show magazine.
“It’s been really neat to see people using my ideas about how to affordably do this because they may not have a ton of money to get started with this, as opposed to getting the NRCS EQIP grants.”
With the excitement about high tunnels growing, and more people adopting the technology, Sleichter said he is seeing changes at the farmers’ markets he sells at.
“People are expecting things earlier and earlier,” he said. “They start asking in February when the tomatoes will be ready.” (Still the end of May or the first of June, he said.)
At times, it can seem there is an oversupply, but things tend to balance themselves out, he said.
“It’s a hand-in-hand relationship,” he said. “You have to have vendors in order to attract customers, and you have to have customers to get more vendors, so you’re kind of growing it hand-in-hand. Hopefully, over time as the local food movement grows, we’ll get more customers to market to support this.”
Sleichter said he’s also noted the quality and variety of vegetables at market going up. Some people are experimenting with fruits, particularly strawberries, which can be brought to market earlier.
Vegetables grown in the tunnels tend to be better quality because it’s not subjected to the extremes of weather. It’s also more fun for the grower, he added. Even when the weather outside is rainy, he can work in his high tunnel after school and in the evenings.

Program changes
Ron Klein, Executive Area Superintendent of the NRCS serves the tri-county area of Barton, Rush and Pawnee counties. He gave an update on the high tunnel portion of the EQIP program that may make it easier for some who have not been able to qualify for the program in the past to finally be able to receive a hand with the cost of erecting their own high tunnels.
The first year the program was available in the area, three tunnels were funded. Since then, interest in the program has increased, with more than 12 more tunnels erected in the past two years. Previously, the requirement that tunnels be placed only on land that had been previously cropped knocked many applicants out of the running. Now, existing gardens may be eligible locations for a new high tunnel, provided the tunnel to be built is not larger than the established garden.
Other changes included the length of the contract, which has been reduced from two years to one year, and a slight change in the amount awarded per square foot for the structure. However, the maximum amount the program will award per high tunnel remains the same, $7,000, Klein said. Priority for the program will go to beginning farmers who are also qualified veterans. Applications for the EQIP program will be available at the new NRCS office at the corner of 10th and Patton next week. Deadline each year is in November, but early applications may receive additional points, Klein said, so he encouraged those interested to apply soon.

State offering two more workshops
Trinity Lutheran Church in Great Bend was one of five sites around the state where the Kansas Department of Agriculture hosted regional farmers’ market workshops. A workshop was held in Colby Thursday, and Wichita on Saturday. Next week, workshops will be held in Olathe on Feb. 9 and Chanute on Feb. 10. Each workshop includes a breakout session where attendees can receive mandatory Kansas Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program Certified Farmer Training they need to be able to accept Senior Farmers Market Nutrition coupons. Last year, the books of $5 coupons were given to more than 200 participants.
Speakers also provided information about programs available with the From the Land of Kansas program, including the Driftwatch Registry Program, information about marketing and communication for market vendors from the Center for Rural Enterprise Engagement and food safety updates from K-State Research and Extension speakers.