LAWRENCE, Kan. - When Lawrence farmer Scott Thellman needed information on building and growing vegetables in high tunnels, he went spelunking through YouTube, extension bulletins and other scattered resources. When it came to detailed, Kansas-specific information, he didn't find a lot.
A new program aims to help the next farmers who find themselves in Thellman's position.
The Kansas Rural Center this month announced the creation of its Tunnel to Table project, funded by a Specialty Crop Block Grant from the Kansas Department of Agriculture. With workshops kicking off in spring, the project aims to provide information and networking for Kansas farmers considering or already growing specialty crops in polytunnels.
"We anticipate that this project will lead to enhanced protection, production, profitability and competitiveness of Kansas specialty crops," Julie Mettenburg, executive director of Kansas Rural Center, said in a news release.
Polytunnels - different designs include high tunnels, low tunnels and hoophouses - are structures typically made of plastic material covering a metal frame. They let in light but protect crops from frost, extending the growing season by months on both ends.
Two Lawrence farmers are helping lead the Tunnel to Table project. Cole Cottin, Kansas Rural Center staffer and program coordinator, and her husband, Dan Phelps, Tunnel to Table activity coordinator, own MAD Farm, now growing produce in Lawrence's Pinckney neighborhood.
They say in a seasonal climate, tunnels can boost a farmer's bottom line and enable them to plant crops like vegetables with more confidence and higher yields.
A few years ago, under two tunnels in rural Lawrence, MAD Farm planted tomatoes early even though the chance of frost still hovered over outdoor crops, Phelps said. They harvested tomatoes, watermelons, cucumbers and peppers all summer, and grew spinach, kale and chard through the winter.
"It extends the growing season, which means it extends the harvest season, which means it extends the income season," Phelps said.
Smaller or DIY tunnels can be constructed for $500 or less, while sturdier versions may cost $5,000 to $6,000.
Thellman, owner of Juniper Hill Farms, received a grant to build the first of his two tunnels. "It was an incentive that helped me invest and kind of take that plunge," he said.
Farming in tunnels requires different methods than outside, which required research, Thellman said. With his crop plan in order, he said tunnels have significantly increased his income per acre.
The Tunnel to Table project aims to lasso some of the "enormous" statewide economic potential for specialty crops, Phelps said. Kansans spend $760 million a year on fruits and vegetables but very little is produced in state.
Cottin said tunnels are a potentially lucrative niche market for farmers, in part because they can fill gaps in the increasingly popular local food season.
"People in the winter are really craving those greens," she said.
'Tunnel' project aims for specialty crops