New greenhouse at community farm will extend season
The grant amount is $9,998 and comes directly from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The high tunnel will allow the farm to provide more fresh produce to statewide soup kitchens and food banks.
“Having one of these allows you to extend your season,” said farm manager Bob Sutton. “You don’t grow starter plants. You grow right in the ground inside the high tunnel. It grows in there through the whole process.”
The high tunnel is a large greenhouse that measures 96 feet long, 30 feet wide and 15 feet high. It is made of tubular steel members covered by plastic, and it will be erected inside the deer fence at the northern end of the property. No permits are required because it’s considered a temporary structure.
Having the high tunnel will allow the farm to start its growing season in mid-March, about a three-week head start on past seasons. Growing will continue into November. The prospect of an extended season accounts for the popularity of high tunnels among farmers, particularly in New England.
Sutton will purchase the high tunnel from a company called Rimol Greenhouse Systems in New Hampshire. Although he doesn’t expect to have it erected in time to begin the 2014 season early, it’ll be up and running in plenty of time to extend the end of the season.
The biggest issue for growing in the tunnel is not the cold, but rather the heat. Along with a vent on top, the plastic sides can be rolled up to allow in more air during the summer to help with cooling. Sutton plans to add a second layer of plastic to keep the tunnel warmer in the winter. The structure is engineered to withstand heavy winds, and has been extensively tested in the Northeast.
While Sutton has not yet decided what crops will be grown inside the tunnel, he says they will be treated differently than the outdoor plants. The farm does not generally irrigate the outside crops, but irrigation will be needed inside the tunnel. The greenhouse will employ drip irrigation using flexible hoses that are buried in the ground next to the plants. The hoses have small openings that water drips through and into the ground around the plants.
“It appears that if we’re very careful and cautious, we can do it with the amount of rain we get in our cistern,” Sutton said.
Water would be transported from the cistern, which is at the front of the farm, by a pipe. There is also the option of putting gutters on the tunnel so collected rainwater can flow into an additional cistern located nearby.
“It will be an interesting element of the farm,” Sutton said. “People will be able to come up, work in it, or just look at it and get an idea of how it works. But the main thing is the extended season.”
Sutton reported that 2013 was the farm’s biggest season in its 13- year history. About 23,000 pounds of vegetables were grown. Most of the vegetables were distributed to four food pantries in Rhode Island: the McCauley House in Providence, the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in Newport, the Jonycake Center in Peace Dale, and Child & Family in Middletown.
Also, vegetables were donated locally to St. Mark Church in Jamestown.
“It gets a little bigger every year. We put more land in production all the time. We get a little better at it. We stagger our growing season so we have things growing throughout the season. It was a good year.”
Help came to the farm last year from an Eagle Scout troop organized by Ian Archibald. The Scouts completed the back section of the new deer fence and built a picnic table. There were also raised beds constructed, where herbs and onions are grown, funded by the Jamestown Garden Club. Another important financial contribution to the farm came from the Gravdahl family. Eleanor Gravdahl, who passed away last year, was a strong supporter of the farm and the donation was made in her memory.
Sutton was quick to point out the excellent response from volunteers in 2013. In addition to a core group that comes to the farm on a regular basis, new people show up to help all the time. Beginning in May, volunteers are needed on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, and Saturday mornings. Anyone interested can just show up.