Here’s a startling trivia fact: Of $760 million worth of fruits and vegetables that Kansans buy each year, only 4 percent are grown in the state.
Blame the relatively short growing season for perishable farmers market crops. One way to extend the season is to protect crops from cold and wind withhoop houses
, also called high tunnels: passive, unheated structures made of plastic sheeting draped over bent metal or plastic pipe arches. Adding three months to the harvest could be the difference between profitability and failure for many market farmers.
To encourage more Kansas farmers to grow veggies,Kansas Rural Center
is conducting workshops around the state this year to teach farmers how to erect and use hoop houses, says Cole Cottin, program director for the center.
A grant from the Kansas Department of Agriculture supports the workshops and a tool that helps growers evaluate what type hoop house makes sense for their operations. The program is calledTunnel to Table
in hopes that more tunnels sprouting up on the Kansas plains will put more fresh and local produce on the table in homes.
Hoop houses can range from simple DIY structures to large tunnels that can be rolled back and forth on rails, Cottin says.
Kevin Prather and Jessi Asmussen (below), husband and wife co-owners of Mellowfields Urban Farm in Lawrence, erected a basic wood, metal and plastic hoop house last year.
They planted lettuce and spinach seeds directly in the ground inside the hoop house in October. The seeds sprouted and grew for several weeks. Around Thanksgiving, growth stopped because of the shortened hours of sunlight, but the plants remained alive until early February, when the lengthening days kick-started growth.
“The spinach doubled in size in a week in early February,” Asmussen says. A second layer of protection — fabric row covers laid like a blanket on top of the plants — is necessary when temperatures drop into the teens and single digits. Despite an especially cold January, Asmussen and Prather say almost all the plants from October survived.
In addition to the crops planted from seed, Asmussen and Prather transplant seedlings started in their basement under grow lights into the hoop house to replace harvested crops. When the weather turns hot in summer, they will cover the tunnel with shade fabric, open it up for ventilation and use it for curing onions and garlic. In fall they will plant greens and Swiss chard.
Mellowfields sells its produce atCottin’s Hardware Farmers Market in winter and the Lawrence Farmers Market in spring and summer.