'Tunnels' triple growing season for local farmer
When Dan Mielke's kids grew up, got married and moved away, he had a problem.
As a small farmer, he couldn't afford to hire a new work force. In order to remain viable, he needed to grow his crops cheaper and with less labor.
In 2002, he received a $5,700 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture to try a new kind of farming called high-tunnel. The "tunnels" are clear plastic tarps that hang over rows of crops. The greenhouse affect allows Mielke to triple his growing season. He can sell beans, peppers and strawberries throughout the year rather than just at harvest.
"Instead of planting my tomatoes the first week of June, I can plant the first week of March," he said. "Now I can sell my crops to the same customer base three times as often."
The tunnels keep out disease, save water and help control the temperature. It's newer technology, and Mielke said it's a way for small farmers to stay afloat in the corporate agriculture climate.
Master gardeners and organic farmers are warming up to the tunnels and Mielke wants other growers to take note. The tents are reasonably priced — Mielke paid around $2,000 to install his and spends about $200 to replace plastic — and are worth the investment. Mielke said he made $6,500 in profit the first year he used the tunnels.
"I doubled my profits and cut my labor to a fifth of the usual cost," he said.
This week, workers from Growers Supply, a nursery supply company in Dyersville, Iowa, are at one of Mielke's farms on Highway PP to install two 50-foot tunnels. The land is on the site of a former tavern and was in rough shape when Mielke bought it. He worked the soil and with the help of mulch from the city of Stevens Point, he hopes to be planting crops by this weekend.
Rob Blush, the project manager from Growers Supply, said his company installed tents in every state in the U.S. as farmers are looking for ways to grow more with less labor and cost.
"The northern growers can create a longer season and make their lives a lot easier," Mielke said. "This is a great way to support the 'buy fresh, buy local' concept and will greatly help the eco-municipality movement."
Mielke will speak on the high-tunnel agriculture concept in November at the National Small Farm Trade Show in Missouri.
Reprinted with permission from Stevens Point Journal, July 10, 2008. Written by Patrick Thornton. Original article can be found at: Stevens Point Journal