CROOKSTON, Minn. Terry Nennich was hoping a certified organic produce farm near this northwest Minnesota community would be the last of four stops by a North Dakota tour group.
Instead, the best example of high tunnel vegetable production in Minnesota may have been shown first, followed by several other plots including Nennich's own produce farm.
Nennich, an instructor at University of Minnesota Extension, led a tour of high tunnels and vegetable farming areas June 25 and 26 in Thief River Falls, Erskine, Bagley and Crookston.
Marvin Baker/MDN --
A high tunnel, or “high hoop,” growing tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, stands on the grounds at the University of Minnesota-Crookston, June 25 during a tour of North Dakota producers. The high tunnel, without artificial heat or light, is able to withstand 120 mile-per-hour winds and is capable of growing produce 10 months of the year in northern Minnesota.
The group, that included 47 gardeners, farmers' market vendors, N.D. Department of Agriculture officials, educators and several county Extension personnel, was briefed on building a high tunnel system, which is a greenhouse without artificial eat or light.
Nennich, who first learned of high-tunnel production in France in 1999, called it a no-brainer.
"Small farmers who want to increase their income can do very well and can get their investment back in the first year with a good market," Nennich said. "One thing with high tunnels is they're not for monstrous farms."
Interest in locally-grown produce bolsters farm tour members
BAGLEY, Minn. Stephanie Sinner thinks a recent produce farm tour she organized to northern Minnesota is a good indicator of the interest in this kind of farming in North Dakota.
Sinner's tour quickly filled with 47 participants including four from Manitoba and two from South Dakota. Several gardeners from Minnesota joined the tour while it was in progress June 25-26.
"It came together easily for this size of a group, but it took some communication," Sinner said. "It's a first-time tour and I plan to do it again."
Sinner, whose North Dakota Department of Agriculture portfolio includes Pride of Dakota and farmers' markets, set up stops in Crookston, Thief River Falls, Erskine and Bagley, Minn., in an effort to get people interested in growing their own vegetables and perhaps marketing after seeing some of the Minnesota operations.
Sinner believes sharply rising fuel and food prices have renewed people's thinking about alternatives they may not have considered even a year ago.
The tour began at a certified organic produce demonstration farm at the University of Minnesota-Crookston. That stop included a high-tunnel tour where tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers are grown. High tunnels are essentially greenhouses without the aid of artificial heating or lighting.
The stop also took in traditional vegetable and flower gardening and grape production and U of M staff explained a drip irrigation system in the high tunnel using fish emulsion as fertilizer.
"We're hoping to get high tunnels started in North Dakota," Sinner said. "And just like in Minnesota, we need a season extension. They work here, they should work in North Dakota."
Sinner has seen a sharp rise in the number of farmers' markets in North Dakota since she moved to the state from Colorado in 2006. And rightfully so. The Department of Agriculture has placed an emphasis on providing grant money for new markets to help jump-start the industry.
In 2003, North Dakota had 14 operating farmers' markets. Fifty-six are listed this year, many of which have already begun their marketing season.
But now, the high-tunnel concept is adding a dimension to gardening and marketing produce, according to Sinner.
Theoretically, high tunnels can be used effectively in North Dakota 10 months out of the year with December and January being the only negative months, not because of cold, but because of lack of sunlight to stimulate the plants.
Rudy Radke helped Sinner get the tour set up. Radke, Fargo, a high-value crops expert and advisory board member of the North Dakota Farmers' Market and Growers Association, said North Dakota certainly has the potential to produce vegetables on the same scale as Minnesota. But people in Minnesota have been doing it a number of years and have most of the kinks worked out of the system, such as which varieties are best, which fertilizer gives optimum results and cost of production vs. income.
Radke admitted he was surprised that so many people showed up for the tour, coming from across the state and including visitors from Powers Lake, Carpio and Minot.
He said the numbers reflect the interest in high tunnels, an inexpensive way to lengthen the growing season by several months.
"I didn't expect this many people," Radke said. "It's been a great response."
Sheri Blaylock represented the Farmers' Markets Association of Manitoba Co-op in Portage La Prairie. The Minnesota tour was the second time this year Blaylock has worked together with her North Dakota counterparts. In February, she was a guest of the North Dakota Farmers' Market and Growers Association conference in Carrington.
Blaylock said there is a strong interest in farmers' markets in Manitoba and although the co-op is just getting started, she believes it will quickly strengthen much like North Dakota's has in the past few years.
But a huge difference in Manitoba, according to Blaylock, is that farmers' markets don't get grants from the provincial government as North Dakota producers receive from the state government.
Still, gardeners are interested in costs involved and want to know more about greenhouses and high tunnels and that's why co-op members and a ministry of agriculture official attended the tour.
Blaylock said many Manitoba residents are interested in staving off the high cost of fuel and food, while others are genuinelly interested in marketing their products to others for extra income.
Sinner used the opportunity, which also included a producer and extension agent from Roberts County South Dakota, to work on a stronger farmers' market network that now includes three states and a Canadian province.
She said it's important, not only for her, but for the vendors and farmers' market and growers association directors who were part of the tour and who may be thinking about high-tunnel production.
As one might imagine, the cost of a system can vary greatly. Larger tunnels with bells and whistles may cost tens of thousands of dollars, according to Nennich.
But someone who is serious about expanding their growing season and thus their income, could set up a complete system with irrigation for about $3,000. Without irrigation, a system may be erected for about $2,000.
Nennich said the high tunnel at the Crookston farm, which houses organic tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, was built with a steel pipe frame with legs buried 18 inches in the ground. It's covered with 6-millimeter plastic. The frame is assembled in four-foot sections and the ultraviolet plastic is draped over the top and fastened to the frame.
One of the best things about a high tunnel, according to Nennich, is produce can be grown in all stages at the same time. By simply placing pastic over the crop, as many as three hardiness zones can be circumvented.
As an example, spinach or lettuce could be started in February, April, June and August to keep a steady supply throughout the summer. Items that need a longer growing season to mature, such as sweet potatoes, could grow and avoid frost until the end of November.
Nennich said it gives the grower a lot of control over nature that wouldn't be there otherwise, but more importantly, a high tunnel will increase yields by at least 30 percent because a lot of plant stress is absent.
Nennich admitted the Crookston site is intense gardening, but it is one of the few certified organic locations in the state of Minnesota and 72 community supported agriculture (CSA) customers purchase weekly produce items there.
"We have a variety of crops," Nennich said. "There are a lot of unique things we're researching."
The 26-foot by 50-foot tunnel is a good beginning system, Nennich said. He stated smaller tunnels are more efficient, but cautioned visitors to consider their market potential before purchasing a small tunnel, assuming money will be saved. People generally expand their tunnel systems over time.
The University of Minnesota-Crookston purchased its high tunnel for $2,500 from Farm Tek, a company in Iowa that specializes in high tunnels and greenhouses. Nennich said the idea was to have one with enough height, 12 feet, so the ends could be opened and a tractor could drive through and till the ground.
Farm Tek high tunnels are guaranteed to withstand a wind of 120 miles per hour and the plastic, guaranteed for three years, often lasts three times that long, according to Nennich.
Addressing North Dakota's concern about consistent wind, Nennich said produce inside a high tunnel would be far more productive than the exact same crops and varieties 10 feet away in the open elements.
"I'm convinced the damage is done by the wind and not the cold," Nennich said. "Research has been done in northern New York to prove this."
Irrigation is generally accomplished with drip tape, an efficient system developed in Israel that sends water only to the roots. That serves two purposes, according to Nennich. First, it nearly eliminates the possibility of plant disease since many diseases begin with moisture problems. Also, water loss is reduced by 60 percent, making a drip system far more cost effective than any others on the market.
Drip tape and organic fertilizers, such as fish emulsion, are found at a Detroit Lakes, Minn., company called Ag Resources.
"The biggest thing you're going to do in a high tunnel is talk to your plants. It's very thereapeutic," Nennich said. "Labor's a no-brainer. You turn on the water and go away. If you forget, you turn it off later."
Nennich told the group, that included a representative of the Manitoba Ministry of Agriculture and South Dakota State University, that inflation is changing consumers' spending habits and transportation costs are going to continue to drive the rise in food prices, essentially forcing people to look for local alternatives.
He said there is already a local food movement going on in northern Minnesota. Average sales are about 20 pounds of produce and he said a lot of people want to know how to freeze the fresh items they are purchasing. He said 3,000 pounds of asparagus have already been sold this season off his 1-acre aparagus plot near Bagley.
"Food prices are up 20 percent to 30 percent and that's going to continue," Nennich said. "And diesel where it is, (at $4.60 a gallon) well, that price isn't going away anytime soon. We can already see the changes in consumer habits."
To take the high-tunnel production a step further, Nennich said his team is researching the aspect of overwintering honey bees in Crookston to eliminate the cost of transporting them to California or Texas for the winter. A residual benefit would be organic honey, which is in great demand and sold at a premium.
Nennich's research will also include the introduction of other beneficial insects into a high tunnel, such as lady bugs. Time will tell if they control harmful bugs or if they reproduce or withstand the Minnesota winter.
Nennich isn't alone in his research. Several demonstration plots and high tunnels dot the landscape from Crookston to Thief River Falls, Bagley, Erskine, Grand Rapids, Staples and Detroit Lakes.
Barb and Chuck Schulstad live near Erskine and are in their first year of high-tunnel production. Visitors were amazed at the items growing in the high tunnel when the tour group stopped at their farm June 26.
The Schulstads are not certified organic, but generally practice organic methods and are using cattle manure as fertilizer. In addition to harvesting vegetables from their traditional garden, they sell their produce on a roadside stand.
The Schulstads call themselves novices and firmly believe a lot of their high tunnel work is experimental. Still, on June 26, they had 7-foot high sweet corn, nine-leaf onions and potato plants that measured hip height.
Part of the Schulstads' curiosity is in growing plants that aren't common in northern Minnesota. One of them is the sweet potato. The Schulstads had 24 sweet potato plants thriving in their 30-foot by 50-foot high tunnel, as well as numerous eggplants.
Chuck Schulstad said if there was anything he would do differently, he would have placed the sweet potatoes and eggplants closer to the center of the high tunnel for better protection during early spring freeze/thaw cycles.
Nennich's research bears him out on that instinct. He said it's much better to plant "cold crops" like lettuce, onions and spinach on the perimeter. At his own farm near Bagley, he purposely planted some sensitive crops on the outside edges of the tunnels and they are definitely showing signs of stress.
Most of Nennich's high tunnel production is sensitive anyway, such as tomatoes, cucumbers and melons. He has onions and garlic in his four high tunnels, but only as space fillers.
Most of his tomatoes are Cobra and Ultra Sweet, varieties that are bred to set fruit at higher temperatures, since a high tunnel can warm quickly in the spring sunshine. Nennich said the two varieties produce the best and turn him a tidy profit.
"In the first year, we paid for the high tunnels just by selling tomatoes," Nennich said. "My advice for commercial growers is to go big. I went with a 48-foot and I really wish I'd have gotten a bigger one."
He actually started with two 14-foot by 98-foot tunnels in 1999 and sells the tomatoes grown in them, along with an entire range of produce at the nearby Bemidji Farmers' Market.
His third tunnel is a 21-foot by 48-foot built in 2002 and designed to withstand heavy snow. Nennich's fourth tunnel is a 26-foot by 72-foot structure.
After doing it nine years, he is certain producers in North Dakota will succeed with a little coaching. He is willing to help as much as he can. In fact, he's already assisted the N.D. Farmers' Market and Growers Association, speaking at the annual conference in Carrington in February.
Part of Nennich's message during the two-day June tour was that people who don't have a lot of property can prosper in agriculture. He said he saw it in Europe and now he's seeing it in Minnesota. His farm is 13 acres and the organic farm near Crookston is about seven acres. The Schulstads have fewer than two acres in production.
Nennich assumes a number of people in North Dakota are in the same situation and have a similar drive to succeed with locally grown products.
"You can see you can be very successful with a small amount of land," Nennich said. "You don't have to be a North Dakota wheat farmer to make money."