The United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is in its inaugural year offering a new opportunity to those interested in growing urban and rural produce in the Greater Cincinnati area. The Cincinnati High Tunnel Initiative allows growers to apply for financial and technical assistance for high tunnel systems, commonly referred to as hoop houses.
Imagine the delicious taste of baby spinach freshly harvested from your own garden – in Cincinnati – all winter long. Impossible, right? Not anymore. High tunnels make growing vegetables possible long after the first frost, and quite possibly, year around.
A high tunnel sits over top of the garden. Arch shaped aluminum poles, anchored in the ground, support removable heavy plastic sheets that trap heat from the sun, warming the air. They look similar to greenhouses, except plants grow in the ground instead of in pots. They have a peak height of at least six feet, and are typically much taller to maximize air flow. Raised beds no higher than 12 inches above the natural soil profile can be created within the tunnel.
High Tunnels usually cost a few thousand dollars, making them unaffordable for most people who don’t grow food for profit. The Natural Resources Conservation Service created the Cincinnati Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative so that more people can grow fresh vegetables throughout all seasons, while managing water and pests effectively. High tunnels most often utilize drip irrigation to efficiently distribute water to plants, while reducing fungal diseases that would often be seen during wet periods of the year.
With this new assistance from NRCS, urban and rural area farmers can build high tunnels, many in or near community gardens in residential areas. With 25 percent of Cincinnati’s population living in a food desert, high tunnels provide a source of nutritious food closer to where people live, and for some, making fresh produce an option that would never have been accessible. High tunnel systems will allow growers to cultivate and harvest fresh produce in larger quantities, by extending the growing season.
High tunnels not only benefit people, they protect the environment too. The plants grown in a high tunnel reduce pesticide and fertilizer loss, while improving plant health and soil quality. Growing and purchasing food locally also improves air quality by decreasing fuel use for transportation.
Cincinnati is on the forefront of providing opportunities for diversified farming operations by offering more flexibility in allowing farming practices within the city limits. Applicants approved for a high tunnel must adhere to local zoning and building requirements. Applicants must also have control of the land where the high tunnel will be installed.
While the NRCS application period has ended for 2020 funding, applications will be accepted at any point for the 2021 funding cycle. To apply for a high tunnel, contact Lori Lenhart, NRCS Urban Conservationist, at 614-653-3460, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Ms. Lenhart will assess proposed high tunnel sites and assist growers through the application process.
To learn more about NRCS or other technical and financial assistance available through NRCS conservation programs, visit Get Started with NRCS or visit your local USDA Service Center.