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Frequently Asked Questions on the NRCS High Tunnel Program

High Tunnel with Roll-Up Ends

As high tunnels grow in popularity for season extension, the USDA is investing in their success. To conduct research on high tunnel production, the NRCS is conducting a program in which they fund farmers’ high tunnels in exchange for three years worth of data on their high tunnel growing. This funding is being sought after by growers all over the country and Growers Supply customers have a variety of questions regarding the program and whether or not they qualify for funding. Here are some of the most popular.

General Questions

1. Do you find that there is a particular package or configuration NRCS will support? I would like to maximize their support and get as much as I can (without being too greedy).

There are specific packages. In fact, there are national requirements, one being that the cover must be at least 6 mil or greater, another that you must have, at minimum, a 6′ peak height. Aside from that, it’s really been up to the states to make those decisions. We tend to do a majority of our business in our Premium High Tunnel because it comes with the 4′ rafter spacing, ends and it’s not going to be the highest cost per square foot. There is the model with the straight sidewall called the Pro Solar Star, which is a bit fancier. It’s a very nice tunnel, but you are going to pay for the upgrade. Basically, once you get your contract, we can tell you exactly how much you can spend per square foot.

Inside of High Tunnel

2. Have you sold or designed any high tunnels for grape growing? We are growers with both new vines and established vineyards suffering from spring and fall frost crop loss and winter die back due to killing cold temperatures.

We absolutely have and in fact, grapes can be considered for the NRCS program. The only issue would be height, but we would look into a high side wall model for you. If you are in a similar situation and aren’t sure if a high tunnel will work for you, feel free to contact us and we can discuss your options.

3. Do you have to be an existing farmer to apply for NRCS funding, or can you be beginning on a new site?

No, you do not need to be an existing farmer. However, if you are not an existing farmer and you can’t prove your status of being a farmer by producing previous year’s tax refunds or receipts, you have to be able to present a business plan describing exactly how that high tunnel would help you achieve your goals. Talk to your local NRCS agent about that, but still apply. In fact, there is some additional funding for “beginning farmers” and you would fall into that category.

Growth in High Tunnel

4. Why am I required to submit all my banking information (direct deposit slip) with the application? It seems like that info would be required after I’ve been selected. I don’t like giving that kind of info out if I don’t have to.

Direct deposit is how the USDA will give the funds to you after they’ve done their final site visit. The account must be linked to the USDA system, which sometimes takes up to two weeks to accomplish. They would like to have it up front so there is no delay once the tunnel is up, that way they can pay you immediately. Essentially what that means is you purchase the high tunnel, your rep comes out, inspects it, stamps off on the final paperwork and then the funds are allocated to you.

5. Is there a limit on land you own?

No, you actually do not need to own the land. As long as you can have a contract indicating that you will lease the land where the high tunnel will be built for the three-year program, you can absolutely still apply.

High Tunnels

1. Is there a design that works better for high snow and wind areas?

That depends on the width that you’re looking at. In the narrower widths, the gothic models tend to do very well. A 20′ wide gothic does nicely because it is very pointy so the snow slides right off. As you get wider, the slope of the gothic model levels out; it’s not as extreme, so in the wider models we recommend the round. You always want to use 4′ rafter spacing and, if you get extreme snow, we can actually add truss packages to the peak that are like special cross struts up in the peak of the building.

Raspberries Grown in a High Tunnel

2. What are the best practices for ventilation?

Roll-up sides are a great option for ventilation. The other benefit of the premium tunnel is that the end panels are actually zippered openings. In the summer months, it is great to leave them wide open. When the sides are rolled up, and the end panels are in the up position, it is literally four sides of ventilation. For those in very extreme climates, a supplemental shade cloth may be a good idea. In altitudes where you have extreme solar gain, or further in the south where it gets very hot, a shade cloth is great way to cut off excess heat. In 2011, they started allowing some states to add supplemental fans. We encourage people to try a season without a fan as this will limit the upfront cost. If you have to, you can call us later and order a fan, but often you have plenty of ventilation with the roll-up sides.

3. How sturdy are the high tunnels and what goes into maintaining the structures?

It comes down to the frame and covering. The high tunnels we are promoting for the NRCS program boast very good warranties. The covering material has a four year guarantee, and in most areas of the country you can get five years out of it. As film degrades the light quality diminishes, so even though it looks like it is in good shape, we recommend replacing the film about every four years. For those of you in other climates, sometimes five years is fine. Replacing the cover on a tunnel ends up costing less than 10% of the purchase price. For example, if you buy a $5,000 tunnel you are looking at about $500 worth of maintenance every four years. The frame is constructed from triple-galvanized steel, so the frame will hold up indefinitely.

4. How portable are these structures? Can I set them up and move them later?

High tunnels are quite portable and are very easy to disassemble and move to a new location. Their design and construction contribute to their portability. They are mounted to the ground with a ground post anchor, meaning at every rafter leg there is metal pipe driven into the ground. The rafter leg slides over the top and bolts to the pipe. We actually have had a large number of clients who essentially put their structure on a wooden sled. They mount their high tunnels on a 2” x 4’ or 6” x 6’and periodically move them. However, this is not recommended for a 30’W x 72’L high tunnel. For the duration of the NRCS program high tunnels cannot be moved. Soil quality and water runoff are being monitored during this time, but once the three-year program is over, you can easily move your structure.

High Tunnel - Roll-up sides

NRCS Program

1. What is the purpose of the program?

The purpose of the program is to promote locally grown food. It is for season extension and it’s to get better, healthier food.

2. What is the typical dollar amount granted?

We’ve seen anything from $4,000 to $8,000. The average, though, is right around $5,000.

3. Do we know how long the NRCS funding will continue?

Through this year at least, and we’re hoping for another year. Originally it was just a three-year pilot, but we’re hoping for an extension since this is technically the third year.

4. If there were no grants in the state does that mean grants are not available?

Unfortunately, if your state has not picked up the program yet, there are not grants available for that program. We recommend checking in with your local NRCS office to see what other opportunities are available. Beyond high tunnel agriculture the NRCS can be very helpful with irrigation for farms. A lot of folks are not aware that it is really a resource meant for small farms. Even if you don’t think you can join the high tunnel program, you should still start a relationship with your agent because you’d be amazed at what funding is available.

Multiple High Tunnels

5. Does the NRCS program cover animal tunnels too?

No. You may not use your high tunnel for anything other than produce sales while you’re under contract. In fact, you could get in a bit of trouble and they could technically pull funding.

6. Is there a link to the national application?

No. It actually needs to be provided to you by your NRCS agent, so we recommend sending them an email. You can contact us though and we can tell you what form number you need to ask for.

For more information on the specifics of the program, we recommend talking with your local NRCS agent for the most accurate answers. We are more than willing to help you get in contact with this person or do our best to answer your questions. Contact a knowledgeable National Account Manager for all of your high tunnel questions and some more details on the NRCS program.

Are you participating in this program? Share your story with other growers?

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