The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has announced a new pilot project under the 'Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food' initiative for farmers to establish high tunnels — also known as hoop houses — to increase the availability of locally grown produce in a conservation-friendly way.

NRCS will provide financial assistance to qualified producers for the project through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the EQIP Organic Initiative.

"This pilot project is going to give us real-world information farmers all over the country can use to decide if they want to add high tunnels to their operations. We know these fixtures can help producers extend their growing season and, hopefully, add to their bottom line," said USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan.

A high tunnel is a greenhouse-like structure made of ribs of plastic or metal pipe covered with a layer of plastic sheeting, at least six feet in height, which modifies the climate inside to create more favorable growing conditions for specialty crops grown in the natural soil beneath it.

High tunnels are easy to build, maintain and move and may be used year-round in Florida, providing steady incomes to farmers — a significant advantage to owners of small farms, limited-resource farmers and organic producers. There may also be advantages to Florida’s natural resources with high tunnel production. “There is a lot less fertilizer use under the tunnels than what we would use in an open field situation,” says Skeeter Bethea, farm manager for Utopia Farms in Florida.

Qualified participants can receive funding for one high tunnel that can cover as much as five percent of one acre; or approximately a 30 by 72 foot structure.

Farmers who would like to sign-up for the high tunnel pilot should call or visit their local NRCS office by March 12, 2010. USDA service center locations are listed on-line at http://offices.usda.gov or in the phone book under Federal Government, U.S. Department of Agriculture. General program information is available on the NRCS Florida website at www.fl.nrcs.usda.gov.

The NRCS is an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that helps people conserve, maintain, and improve natural resources and the environment.