Towards the end of 2011, the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service announced the opportunity for farmers to apply for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative. February 3rd marked the end of the first application period for the application. While applications can be submitted continually, there are two more evaluations coming up this year,with deadlines on March 30, 2012 and June 1, 2012.

The Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative provides technical and financial assistance for farmers interested in extending their growing season for high-value crops. This initiative was first introduced by the USDA in 2009 as a pilot project to help increase the availability of local food. A high tunnel is the same as a hoop house: an unheated structure made of plastic stretched over a metal or plastic frame. Easy to build and maintain, high tunnels are an energy efficient way to extend the growing season by providing shelter and extra warmth for certain crops. Here in the Northwest that could mean growing greens well into the winter and tomatoes or other heat-lovers in the summer and early fall. Extending the growing season means a steadier income for farmers, which is particularly important for small-scale farms with limited resources.

While this is a great opportunity to add to your farm infrastructure and, ultimately, your bottom line, the process of becoming eligible for this EQIP initiative does take time and effort. Because this program is funded through NRCS, one major purpose is to ensure that the high tunnel construction and management is conducted in a conservation-friendly manner. For instance, since water run-off from hoop houses can cause erosion and pooling, conservation practices such as sun-as-drain installation, filter strips, and critical-area planting may be employed along with the high tunnel. Other conservation practices that may be implemented as a condition of high tunnel construction include the use of integrated pest management, nutrient management, cover cropping, or conservation crop rotations.

You can apply for the initiative through your local NRCS office. These are the folks that will determine the eligibility of your farm based on certain criteria, like complying with highly-erodible land and wetland conservation provisions. The applications are reviewed on the national level, however. If you qualify as a “historically underserved client,” which includes Beginning Farmers or Ranchers, Limited Resource Farmers, and Socially Disadvantaged Farmers,  you may receive enhanced benefits if your application is eligible for the High Tunnel Initiative or other EQIP programs.

While there are several hoops to jump through to become eligible and apply for this and other EQIP programs, it could be a worthwhile process. By working with NRCS staff to ensure that your farm is taking measures to aid conservation, you also ensure that your farm operates in a more sustainable way. And with a new hoop house! 

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