Tunnel of Veg
April 14th, 2012 - By Lari Robling
Sure, eating locally is easy in places like California where there is practically a year-round growing season. And while it will never be California in the Delaware Valley, Penn State University says a simple structure known as a High Tunnel can add months of productivity to rural and urban farms. Discover how this technique is being used to provide not only food to our neighborhoods, but also nutrition and education programs.
You might say Dr. Bill Lamont controls the weather. He’s a Horticulture professor at Penn State University and best known as the guru of high tunnel farming.
He explains, “You are mainly just controlling the environment a little bit. For us in PA with the tunnel for crops like tomatoes peppers eggplant you are probably in an environment similar to North Carolina.”
A high tunnel is a simple frame structure covered in plastic. The smallest are about the size of a school bus; larger ones can be three times that. There’s no electricity or fans, but raising and lowering the plastic cover controls the temperature through passive solar energy.
That means you can extend the growing season, starting crops earlier and harvesting cool weather crops well through the winter. Educator Heather Zimmerman is a disciple of Lamont, and helps develop the High Tunnels in Philadelphia for Penn State Agriculture Extension. Why does she love the tunnels?
“Ooohhh, I got Brussels sprouts early in March you can start garlic a month later and harvest it six weeks earlier if you grow it in the high tunnel,” she says. “So the greens are great and in the summer the tomatoes are excellent.”
Zimmerman says covering crops in cool weather is not a new concept –it’s been around for centuries, but the High Tunnels have only been in Philadelphia for about five years. The first was at Saul High School for Agriculture. Now there are eleven sites in the city–some with two tunnels–AND there’s a waiting list.
The high tunnel at 8th and Poplar Streets sits on parks and recreation land just under the light rail trains. It’s sandwiched between abandoned lots, a skate park, tennis court, and a community garden.
Teens 4 Good, a youth-led urban agricultural business and job training program, oversees the farm here. Aviva Asher is the manager and says this kind of farming is more than growing plants. Educational and social programs thrive here as well.
“We harvest for a weekly farm stand on site,” she explains, and we take EBT and senior vouchers here. It’s an affordable farm stand for the community as well we harvest for a farmers market once a week at Frankford and Palmer.”
To put that into perspective Asher explains, “We donate 20 percent of our produce to food cupboards at our neighborhood centers and sell about 80 percent through our youth led agriculture business.”
And since water is essential to any farm, the teens also participated in project with Penn State to design a water collection system. The idea is to replace water from the fire hydrant on the corner with captured rain water. They demonstrated the unique bicycle-driven aspect of this system at a recent Academy of Natural Sciences sustainability event.
“The rain,” says Asher, “will fall off the roof and land in the gutters .It then goes into a five hundred gallon holding tank. We can fire up the bike pump or turn on an irrigation system. There are a few flaws; we are working on getting it fine tuned.”
And if a twelve month growing season, affordable fresh produce and education isn’t enough Asher says there’s one more advantage to the High Tunnel.
“If you fall under people’s radar and then one day you are putting up a structure that is fifteen- feet high neighbors stopped by and everyone took notice!”
High Tunnel locations:
- Overbrook Environmental Education Center, 6134 Lancaster Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19151
- Methodist Family Services of Philadelphia Heritage Farm, 4300 Monument Road, Philadelphia, PA 19131
- Urban Tree Connection Neighborhood Foods, 5125 Woodbine Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19131
- Saul High School Henry Got Crops, 7100 Henry Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19128
- Grumblethorpe Historic House, 5267 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19144
- Mort Books Memorial Farm Weavers Way Co-op, 1011 E. Washington Lane, Philadelphia, PA 19138
- Urban Girls Produce at the Schuylkill Center Farm, 8480 Hagy's Mill Road, Philadelphia, PA 19128
- The Walnut Hill Community Farm, 4610 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103
- Federation of Neighborhood Centers' Teens 4 Good, 1315 Walnut Street, Suite 1401 Philadelphia, PA 19107
- SHARE Food Program's Nice Roots Farm, 2901 W. Hunting Park Avenue Philadelphia, PA 19129