UW Extension’s high tunnel efforts fool Mother Nature | TheFencePost.com

UW Extension’s high tunnel efforts fool Mother Nature

Story Erin Anders
University of Wyoming
2011-2012 ACRES Student President

The gardening community of Wyoming has two garden gurus: Jeff Edwards, UW Extension educator, and Milton Geiger, UW Extension energy coordinator.

Since 2010, Edwards and Geiger have been developing the Wyoming Hoop House Information Network.

This network has constructed 50 high tunnels with 484 volunteers and has facilitated various workshops for nearly 1,000 people throughout the state.

Workshops provide hands-on demonstrations in constructing low-cost, energy-efficient high tunnels.

The high tunnel design is based on a modified, traditional hoop style high tunnel developed by Del Jimenez of New Mexico State University Sustainable Agriculture Science Center.

Wyoming’s volatile weather, the rising costs of food and the success of local food movements have increased the demand for high tunnel education.

The initial high tunnel project sought to enroll 80 participants and conduct four workshops; results were nine workshops with 308 participants.

Albany county newest demonstration site

With help from Ted Craig, Wyoming Department of Agriculture specialty crops grant coordinator, Edwards and Geiger extended efforts into Albany County — among the most altitude-challenged counties in the state.

At 7,200 feet, the county is home to the project’s newest demonstration site — UW’s Agricultural Community Resources for Everyday Sustainability (ACRES) Student Farm.

ACRES is a UW Recognized Student Organization run by volunteers and is at the Laramie Research and Extension Center’s greenhouse complex just east of the university’s campus.

ACRES has become an integral part of the local food movement in Laramie.

Volunteers participate in two local farmers markets and offer a 15-member, 12-week Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. CSA is a program in which members buy a “share” (or a half-share) of produce at the beginning of the season and then receive a basket of produce every week of the season.

real experience, fresh ideas

Produce is also provided to local businesses and the university’s cafeteria.

Students of all disciplines can obtain real farm experience and are encouraged to explore fresh ideas on the farm.

Many of these ideas develop into research projects or internships.

The high tunnel project has provided four paid internships to undergraduate students offering valuable skills related to research and sea- son extension.

The hands-on workshop in May 2012 was open to all interested community members and demonstrated building durable, low-cost ($3-$5/square foot) high tunnels easily constructed out of readily available materials. The tunnels measure 12 feet by 32 feet and have four different heat-retention treatments.

engaging the community

Five high tunnels were built over five days with seven to 15 volunteers per day through a combination of efforts by ACRES volunteers, various community members, and students from Wyoming Technical Institute, a technical school in Laramie.

“Any opportunity for WyoTech students to collaborate with students from the University of Wyoming is awesome,” notes Jessica Nape, volunteer coordinator at WyoTech. “Many of our students come from an agricultural background and really enjoy construction projects; the work with ACRES was a perfect fit.”

Most of ACRES’ labor force is absent during the traditional growing season in Laramie (May–September) because volunteers are mainly students.

According to Sarah Legg, ACRES vice-president and student volunteer since 2009, “The new hoop houses allow for overlap between the growing season and the school season, thus providing a larger number of students with the opportunity to get hands-on experience with agriculture.”

Longer season, more vegetables

These tunnels have protected vegetables from the elements and provided volunteers a place to do what they love even in the cold of winter.

Every night in Laramie was below freezing since Oct. 1, but there were still peas, spinach, and cabbage growing at ACRES in the middle of January.

Perry Baptista, ACRES president-elect and volunteer since 2010, states the high tunnels, “…have definitely increased ACRES production capacity.

With as harsh as the Laramie climate is, they allow us to consistently produce more during a longer season.

We still had cabbages growing at the end of November.

I see these hoop houses as enabling ACRES to continue future growth — not just in plant production but in the size of our organization and student/community involvement.” ❖

This article appeared in most recent edition of the University of Wyoming College of Agriculture and Natural Science’s magazine, Reflections, published annually by the Agricultural Experiment Station. To see the entire issue, go to http://www.uwyo.edu/uwexpstn/publications/reflections/.