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Seeking Mentors and Mentees for High Tunnel Mentorship Program

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2017 March Issue Newsletter

By Brittany Overshiner

High tunnels directly contribute to the local economy and food supply by improving the square foot productivity of agricultural land during the regular growing season, and by extending production into the late fall, winter and spring. Fresh greens, like spinach, mustards, lettuce, kale and chard produced in winter provide a high value complement to storage crops sold through increasingly popular winter farmers’ markets and winter CSA programs. Grafted greenhouse tomatoes can produce exceptionally high yields of blemish free fruit. With proper management, high tunnels increase farm viability by increasing the profitability of farms both in square footage and annual output.

In 2009 the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) launched a program to subsidize the cost of purchasing and constructing high tunnels for farmers, in order to assess their viability. Many Massachusetts farms have received this funding and built high tunnels, or they have purchased them on their own. Many farmers build simple structures with recycled materials and affordable supplies.

There are particular challenges related to growing under plastic and outside of the regular growing season that farmers don’t face in the field. How can one prevent the proliferation of leaf mold in a high tunnel tomato crop? Are grafted tomato plants worth the extra effort or cost? How late can head lettuce be planted into the fall if it needs to reach maturity by Christmas? Which varieties of kale are best for winter production? Is it economically viable to grow early carrots in a high tunnel? How can one prevent the buildup of salts in protected soils? What irrigation systems are the most effective?

Those are just a few examples of the seemingly endless questions a new grower might want to answer when venturing into protected vegetable production. Even after years of experience, many growers continue to face new challenges in the production of high quality crops in high tunnels. By tapping into the knowledge of experienced growers we can reduce the risks of a trial-by-fire approach for new growers and provide real and specific data and advice to help them improve their productivity.

NOFA/Mass recognizes a deficit in educational resources available to farmers using organic methods to grow in high tunnels. We submitted and were awarded a Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) Specialty Crops Grant to make those resources available and improve the output of high tunnels managed organically in Massachusetts. The grant will provide a series of workshops and a mentorship program. The first workshop was hosted recently at Stone Hill College where Michael Kilpatrick and Andrew Mefford led a daylong seminar attended by more than 80 area farmers.

The mentorship program will match six pairs of mentees and mentors, connecting growers who are new to high tunnel production with experienced and capable mentors to help them build their capacity. The duration of the match is two years, during which time the mentees and mentors will visit each other’s farms, and communicate remotely with each other and other pairs. Mentees will set specific goals based on their strengths and challenges and be asked to report on their lessons learned in documents that can be shared with the general public. Mentees receive a $400 stipend and a $375 scholarship to attend the high tunnel workshops.

In addition to their work with their mentees, mentor farmers will host workshops at their farms and participate in a cumulative daylong seminar in 2018. These events will allow other growers to benefit from the experience of the mentors. Mentors should be willing to make a commitment of 80-100 hours to the program, over the course of the two year grant period. Both mentees and mentors will be required to attend periodic remote conferences and complete reports on their progress. Mentors will be provided a stipend of $2000 for participating.

Applications for this program are due March 13. Application forms are linked at the bottom of this article and are also available on the NOFA/Mass website. Anyone can apply for the mentorship, regardless of the number of years you have farmed or your experience level. You should either already have a high tunnel or be building a high tunnel by the end of 2017 in order to be considered for the mentee program.

We are particularly interested in mentors who have substantial experience with multiple greenhouse and high tunnel structures growing substantial quantities of a wide variety of greenhouse crops in multiple seasons. Ten years of protected vegetable production is preferred, but not required.

High Tunnel Mentorship Description and Participation Requirements

Online Application Form for Mentees and Mentors

If you have questions about the mentorship program please email our coordinator, Brittany Overshiner: Brittany@nofamass.org

If you have questions about the grant, please contact the grant coordinator, Allison Houghton: ahoughton@nofamass.org.

 

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