By CHRISTY LOCHRIE
For the Capital Press
RIDGEFIELD, Wash. -- Fall rains already made their muddy mess, but a little muck didn't slow down Joyce Haines and Greg Vaidivia on a recent afternoon, when some 50 people trekked up their driveway to see their new high-tunnel greenhouse.
The visitors, mostly farmers, were at Northwest Organic Farms as part of a day-long workshop hosted by Washington State University Clark County Extension on high tunnel greenhouses. High tunnels greenhouses are plastic-sheathed structures used to protect plants and enhance crop yield.
Haines and Vaidivia have farmed their five-acre plot of mostly seasonal crops for 15 years and sell their organic produce to both community supported agriculture customers and wholesale to local grocers. They built their first tunnel greenhouse eight years ago at a cost of about $3,000, Haines said.
But the cost of the couple's most recent tunnel, installed around Easter from a kit, was offset by a high-tunnel conversation program, funded by the USDA.
To qualify for the program, which reimbursed most of the $6,500 it cost to purchase and install the kit, Haines and Vaidivia had to fill out several forms, meet with Anitra Gorham, a resource conservationist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service to plan the project, gain USDA approval and a contract for the project, have a post-building site inspection and agree to use and maintain the tunnel for crop cultivation for at least four years.
Once the project was complete and Gorham signed off on it, the couple was issued a check for cost share at a rate of $2.57 per square foot, or $5,597.
"That's the biggest thing," Haines said. "You have to have enough money to pay for this tunnel" before being reimbursed.
Gorham approved seven Clark County high-tunnel greenhouse projects in 2012. The federal program allows for cost share of up to 2,178 square feet of tunnel space -- whether that's a single tunnel or several smaller ones.
The measurement cap is inclusive at this time, so if a project was approved and built in 2012, the square footage for that project is figured into future projects, for the cumulative cap. Those restrictions may change in upcoming years, Gorham said.
No application deadline has been set for 2013, but Gorham urges anyone who is interested in the program to contact their county's agricultural agent and apply as soon as possible.
Also, if the plastic or structure is damaged in the four years following its construction, the farmer is required to repair it under the federal contract.
Haines said, even with the red tape, the project was well worth it for her farm.
"It's better than what we put up, no doubt about it," Haines said, adding that while they could have made a high tunnel for about half the kit price, the structure is better built and in the end cost them less with the program.
As far as the benefits go, Carol Miles of Washington State University Mount Vernon said tunnels protect crops from too much rain -- which is particularly bad for tomatoes that tend to burst after a heavy downfall -- and they raise both temperature and humidity, which promotes plant growth during the growing season. Potential downsides revolve around an increase in insects and soilborne disease.
Haines said they haven't seen an increase in either pests or disease. Tomato and pepper crops came in about two weeks early and there was a higher yield, although she wasn't able to quantify how much more.
For Haines, the tunnels make a difference as their small farm works to stay competitive.
"This is how we pay our rent," Haines said. "This is our real job."