High Tunnels May Yet Keep Us "Grasshoppers" Well Fed Through Kentucky Winters

Images from the organic research farm at the University of Kentucky

Images from the organic research farm at the University of Kentucky

My 2011 grasshopper moment came on a perfect early September morning as I watched Dr. Mark A. Williams, top left, and Dr. Krista Jacobsen introduce a crowd of interested people to the sustainable agriculture research work underway at the University of Kentucky's South Farm. Mark directs undergraduate studies for the Sustainable Agriculture program, and Krista teaches in the program. (Bios and contact information here.) Mark is also an associate professor, Landscape Horticulture and Weed Management.

Like Aesop's grasshopper, I have not done enough work this year to store and preserve homegrown and local foods so our household can continue eating from the bounty of fresh produce that has filled our plates since spring. I admire the far-sighted, hard-working people like fellow food blogger Beth Dotson Brown, who explained her commitment to preserving and cooking year-round from her garden when she launched The Goodness of the Garden in the fall of 2009.

Then there's my family in beautiful Wayne County, who sent the photo below several weeks ago. They insist the shelves are even fuller now, topped off with bright jars of ratatouille and salsa from this year's garden.

Part of a full pantry at the Roberts residence in Wayne County, Kentucky

Part of a full pantry at the Roberts residence in Wayne County, Kentucky

I do wonder whether I share the same genes as these loved ones—was I adopted? And no, I will not disclose the address of that amazing pantry. If there is hope for black sheep grasshoppers like me who live in central Kentucky, it comes from the possibility that our amazing, exhausted growers are going to extend their growing seasons and produce vegetables for us even in the dark, cold months.

Until now, central Kentucky has had minimal deep winter production of fresh vegetables for sale at the winter Lexington Farmers Market or through a winter CSA subscription. That may be changing. Three growers at the Lexington Farmers Market have said recently that they are at least considering using greenhouses or unheated high tunnels (hoop houses) to grow winter vegetables for sale in Lexington. In my grasshopper heart, I hope so!

And so, even though tomatoes, green beans, onions, arugula and a host of herbs still filled the garden beds outside my urban back door on that fine morning at the University's organic farming research center in south Lexington, my grasshopper ears perked up when Mark and Krista explained research aimed at helping growers choose and build the most effective high tunnel for long-term commercial production. One challenge is to solve the riddle of how to make high tunnels both affordable and movable.

My sketchy, unscientific understanding: the tunnels protect plants grown directly in the ground, not in an artificial planting medium. After protecting plants for a few months, the tunnels need to move for at least two reasons. First, high tunnels cause some of the negatives associated with greenhouses (salts, insects, pathogens), so the soil needs to be uncovered and allowed to rebuild. Second, moving allows just-in-time cover for plants like tomatoes that get a late summer start in full sun but then require the warming protection of the high tunnels' plastic bubble to keep growing for an extra few weeks after outdoor temperatures fall. UK researchers are testing different approaches to making it possible for Kentucky growers to move their high tunnels as needed.

Applause for the Sustainable Agriculture program and its faculty, staff, students, and volunteers! We appreciate and need the new knowledge you are developing and sharing. (Especially those of us who are grasshoppers instead of virtuous, plan-ahead ants.)

Stacked shelves photo credit—JHR: Thank you!

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