John Faherty reports:
Any person who grows one, or anyone who wants to eat one, knows that the wait for a good, juicy, locally grown tomato can feel interminable around here.
The soil is willing, but the weather will not cooperate. The winter lingers, the spring takes awhile to begin and tomato plants typically cannot go into the ground until May. The tomatoes themselves are not ready to be pulled from the vine until sometime around the Fourth of July.
But no solution has been forthcoming. After all, there’s nothing to be done about the weather.
Unless, that is, you are a farmer willing to listen to your then 21-year-old daughter who is studying agriculture at the University of Kentucky and has this crazy idea that her dad might want to think about.
That is exactly what happened in Warren County, where a family farm was inspired to be more sustainable and more profitable. This old farm is now using new principles to make more tomatoes. The idea increases sustainability by extending the growing season and allowing people to eat locally more often.
In short, it means fresh tomatoes sooner, and planting in stages, allowing for a longer stretch of perfectly ripe produce. It works on the farm and it can work in the backyard.
A high tunnel, sometimes called a hoop house, is essentially a greenhouse set over a bed in a field. That last distinction is important. A high tunnel is different from a greenhouse because the high tunnel means the plants go directly into the ground.
These are simple structures covered in plastic. The plants are heated by the sun and protected from the wind. Tomato plants like them so much they yield ripe fruit in early June, four to five weeks earlier than normal.
Marissa Kruthaup is the agriculture major, now a senior graduating a few weeks, who brought the idea from the classroom to her father’s Morrow farm two years ago.
It was, she said, a little nerve-racking.
Eight acres on the family’s 75-acre farm are used to grow produce. Farmers, like Marissa’s dad, are often reluctant to change the way they do things – and for good reason. Farming practices are tried over time and crops only come once a year.
A bad new idea comes at a real cost.
But Marissa, now 22, was confident high tunnel farming would work. She had seen it in her studies as she worked toward her degree in sustainable agriculture. The crops came in earlier and healthier, which is what really matters on a farm.
The family sells its produce through the Kruthaup Family Farm Community Supported Agriculture, in which local families buy shares of the yield.
A share costs $200 or $350 per year, depending on size, for a weekly share of fresh produce. The family promises to use “sound, sustainable farming techniques.”
So Marissa approached her dad and said the family should build high tunnels.
She was not expecting a “yes,” but she was hoping she didn’t get a “no.”
She got exactly what she was hoping for.
“He said: ‘I don’t know about that. I don’t know how to use it. How would we build it?’ ” Marissa remembers of the conversation with her father, Ken. “But he didn’t say no.”
Ken is not just a farmer; he also has a day job as an independent computer engineer.
“I’m like, ‘I don’t know about this.’ But can you imagine if people in the computer field were unwilling to change?” Ken asked. “Change is part of the deal.”
Building the structure would cost money, and it would take time to try an idea that may or may not work. But Marissa had thought out her pitch. And why was he sending her to school to study agriculture if he could not trust what she was learning?
Ken told Marissa he would be willing to think about it.
She said he should come down to see the high tunnels on the UK campus.
In mid-June, he went down to Lexington and saw the six tunnels.
The timing of that visit was important. Typically, fresh tomatoes in this part of the country do not arrive until July. It is an event that is awaited and celebrated by people who love nothing better than a sweet local tomato.
But on this trip to UK in mid-June – still spring – Ken found the waiting already over.
“They had already been picking tomatoes for a while,” Ken said. “Our stuff was good the year before, and this just blew ours away.”
Ken made up his mind on the spot: “After 200 years of farm heritage, I realized something had to change.”
In February, the tunnels went up. The family – Marissa’s brother Logan is a freshman studying sustainable agriculture at UK – contracted some Amish builders to erect two large tunnels.
Each is 50 feet by 36 feet. They are built high enough to walk and work in, hence the name. They have doors at each end and sides that can be rolled up from the bottom to allow for ventilation.
On a cool day last week, they were already hot from the sun, the chilly weather outside significantly different from the hot air inside. The best part, for Marissa, is that the plants still go directly in the ground.
“Tomatoes in a pot would make me nervous,” Marissa said. “But growing a tomato is still growing a tomato. This is still farming.”
Marissa’s professor, Krista Jacobsen, is thrilled to see a student bring something from the classroom to the family farm.
“It’s why you get into these applied fields,” she said.
And farmers aren’t the only beneficiaries of such a system. Regular house gardeners can, too. “It definitely has a backyard application,” Jacobsen said.
“It’s scalable and affordable and it works.”
Logan, 19, said the farm tunnels will only get more use, and he envisions building more. “We could grow in a high tunnel from March through November,” he said. “Absolutely no problem.”
This year’s tomatoes will also be a more sustainable crop if only because local crops do not just taste better, they also use fewer resources getting them to local tables.
One tunnel will bring zucchini, cucumbers and yellow squash. The other is dedicated exclusively to tomatoes: one plant is called a Garden Peach, the other the Fourth of July, a name that reflects when it should be ready.