High hopes for high tunnels

SARAH SYVERSON tastes lettuce as she weeds in her high tunnel with the help of Allan Ralston. Enlargephoto

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

SARAH SYVERSON tastes lettuce as she weeds in her high tunnel with the help of Allan Ralston.

A group of farmers gathered in Mancos over the weekend to discuss what seems to be a growing trend in local agriculture: high tunnels.

High tunnels, also called hoop houses, are plastic-covered, unheated structures that extend the growing season. Local farmers have been looking to them lately to make late and earlier frosts easier to deal with and to protect their produce.

Judy Garrigues, with the Dolores Water Conservancy District, said a government cost-share program for the cost of the high tunnels has fueled the local interest in the structures.

Recently, about 37 farmers have applied to install the structures, said Garrigues. The gathering in Mancos on Saturday at Sarah Syverson's farm was to discuss with others, especially farmers who have already installed the structures, how they deal with common challenges.

The biggest challenge - wind.

"Wind was a big issue," Garrigues said. "How can we be successful and not just leave a bunch of skeletons across the county."

Syverson installed her high tunnel late last year and had a bountiful winter, full of lettuce and spinach, most of which she donated to the Mancos schools.

But Monday, well Monday was a bad day.

"The wind just ripped the plastic off," she said.

And she added, she followed all the necessary steps to make the wind easy on the high tunnel. She oriented it in the right direction and even purchased a stronger woven plastic.

"It ripped on the seam of the plastic, so maybe it is a manufacturer problem," she said.

In the meantime, Syverson was busy covering her lettuce crop and trying to tie down the massive piece of flapping plastic.

Another couple at the gathering Saturday told the group that they had lost two high tunnels and shared with the other farmers how best to keep the same thing from happening to them.

But many believe the risk of wind damage is worth it.

"They extend the season by three to six weeks," Garrigues said. "It can make the difference between making a profit and not making a profit."

Garrigues said it the high tunnels will help the area become more productive.

"We are looking for this area to be more food secure," Garrigues said. "We are trying to feed the schools, hospitals and get our local restaurants to buy local."

Despite the wind on Monday that tore plastic off her 30- by 70-foot structure, Syverson is not ready to give up.

"So far, we have harvested 67 pounds of spinach and 21 pounds of lettuce," she said.

JUDY GARRIGUES with the Dolores Conservation District discusses high tunnels for growing at a workshop Saturday at the Sarah Syverson farm. Enlargephoto

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

JUDY GARRIGUES with the Dolores Conservation District discusses high tunnels for growing at a workshop Saturday at the Sarah Syverson farm.