State belatedly joins cost-share program for organic farmers
By DAVE WILKINS
SWEET, Idaho -- A new government program is helping organic farmers extend their growing season through the use of simple hoop houses.
Forty-three states participated in a pilot program this year offered through USDA's Environmental Quality Incentives Program Organic Initiative.
One of seven states that didn't participate, Idaho will make the program available to organic farmers in 2011.
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service officials announced the addition of the program in Idaho during an organic field tour Aug. 26 near the tiny town of Sweet.
"When word got out that our neighboring states were offering the program, I got countless calls from interested producers," said Clint Evans, NRCS assistant state conservationist.
Hoop houses, also known as seasonal high tunnels, are simple frame structures covered with plastic. They look like greenhouses, but have no heat source or other improvements.
The structures will allow organic producers to extend their growing season and capitalize on off-season marketing opportunities.
"That's one of our big objectives," Geoff Neyman, of Sweet Valley Organics, told visitors Aug. 26 during a tour of the farm organized by the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides.
Sweet Valley Organics is looking at putting in hoop houses as early as this fall with hopes of extending its growing season into the winter.
The farm, owned by Neyman, Chris Florence and Chance Morgan, produces tomatoes, squash, eggplant, lettuce, melons and other fresh produce on six acres.
Idaho NRCS will pay for half the cost of the structures based on the average cost per square foot.
Florence estimated that it would cost anywhere from $1,900 for a large hoop house frame purchased as a kit to as much as $4,000 or $5,000 for a prefabricated structure.
The cost-share funding will be great help, he said.
Seasonal high tunnels will allow the farm to start vegetables earlier in the spring and go later into the fall and winter, he said.
It will also help protect the crops from hail and excessive rainfall that could cause nutrient leaching, he said.
"It allows us to start earlier and finish later," Florence said in an interview. "It allows us to produce a lot more from the same acreage."
Sweet Valley Organics planted its tomatoes the second week of April this year. It protected the crop with cold frame covers made of hard plastic. The beds were heated with geothermal water lines, so the covers had to be opened during the day and closed at night.
It was a labor-intensive system, but it worked.
"The high tunnels will allow us to do the same thing, but much more affordably," Florence said.
To qualify for cost-share funding, producers must purchase a pre-engineered structure with a manufacturer's warranty lasting at least four years, Evans said.
The structures must be at least 6 feet in height and be installed on existing cropland.
Signups for EQIP Organic Initiative projects are accepted on a continuous basis. For more information about the initiative visit www.id.nrcs.usda.gov