Penn State working with Philadelphians on urban ag with high tunnels

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- High tunnels offer an inexpensive way to extend the production season for vegetables and small fruits. They also might help eradicate a "food desert" in the southeast corner of the Keystone State, if a collaboration between Penn State Extension and community partners in Philadelphia is successful.

High tunnels consist of a galvanized metal pipe frame covered by a single layer of plastic sheeting, with plastic sides that can be rolled up and down manually to control the temperature inside the structure and thus extend the growing season and improve yield and quality.

They are ideal for producing vegetables and small fruits in urban areas, according to Bill Lamont, professor of vegetable crops in the College of Agricultural Sciences.

"If the trucks stop bringing food into any major metropolitan area in the United States, for whatever reason, in a short period of time there will not be any food available," Lamont said. "We want to give people in Philadelphia an appreciation for the value of food, its nutrition and what goes into growing it. They need to realize that it doesn't just grow on the shelves of grocery stores."

With more than 86 percent of the population of the United States residing in or around urban areas, urban farming could contribute to food security, food safety and workforce development, Lamont said.

"It also could increase access to vegetables and fruits -- particularly for populations in so-called 'food deserts' that lack retail food outlets -- and could help combat the alarming rise in obesity, especially in children," he said. "Folks in the cities are now several generations removed from the farms where their grandparents and great grandparents experienced gardening and growing their own food. We're trying to re-establish that connection."

The College of Agricultural Sciences, through its faculty in the Department of Horticulture and extension educators in the Philadelphia office of Penn State Extension, has sought funding to support the acquisition and construction of 10 high tunnels in the city.

The high tunnels will help the following organizations to extend their farms' growing seasons: SHARE's Nice Roots Farm, Grumblethorpe Museum and Farmstand Farm, Overbrook Environmental Center Farm, Methodist Home for Children's Heritage Farm, the Federation of Neighborhood Centers' Teens4Good Farm, Walnut Hill Community Farm, Urban Girls Farm located at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, Weaver's Way Cooperative at the Awbury Arboretum, Urban Tree Connection's Neighborhood Foods Farm and W.F Saul High School.

These high tunnels now make up the High Tunnel Alliance, a network fostered by the Penn State Extension office in Philadelphia.

With funding supplied by two U.S. Department of Agriculture Specialty Crops Block Grants awarded through the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, the partnership has developed high-tunnel operations that produce year-round greens, such as collards, kale and spinach, and other cool-season vegetables that can be sold to the adjacent communities in the surrounding urban area.

"Involvement in urban agriculture is indeed a very noble undertaking and in keeping with the mission of Penn State -- the state's land-grant institution," Lamont said. "Encouraging and supporting agriculture throughout the commonwealth is part of our history and identity."

Lamont said this type of intensive protected farming is possible regardless of location.

"We want to re-connect the urban populations with the inherent strength that is in the land itself, whether it's a 4,000-acre farm or a small parcel of land in the city," he said. "The only difference is the scale."

Using high-tunnels to extend the growing season in urban areas is somewhat of a novel concept, Lamont noted. "High tunnels have become popular with growers because of their simplicity and effectiveness in protecting crops from low temperatures in both spring and fall," he explained.

"Their primary function is to elevate temperatures a few degrees each day over a period of several weeks. High tunnels have sufficient versatility to make them useful on a wide diversity of crops and various cropping systems."

Drip irrigation is used for watering, and crops are fed by injecting soluble fertilizers or applying organic-based fertilizers and composts, Lamont said.

"High tunnels are used differently in different areas of the country and the world," he said. "While they're used to extend the growing season in the temperate regions, in the tropical regions they're used as 'rainout' shelters to protect crops from excessive rain. You can grow anything in a high tunnel."

Through another USDA and Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture Specialty Crops Block Grant, the partnership hopes to construct six more tunnels, Lamont noted. These will be located at rehabilitation-program living facilities for low-income elders, child-welfare agencies and schools.

"I think that the use of high tunnels in urban agriculture will continue to grow and expand in Philadelphia," Lamont said. "There's certainly a lot of opportunities and excitement surrounding this initiative."

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Last Updated November 23, 2011