Farming in High Tunnels
Almost 20 years ago, Andre Cantelmo first got his hands on a high tunnel. He was working on Barker’s Farm in Stratham, helping farmer Gordon Barker build one.
High tunnels are temporary farming structures cropping up all over the Seacoast region for the sole purpose of pushing more local produce to market. The hoop frames are made of galvanized steel and stand tall enough to accommodate upright humans and very tall tomato plants. They are covered with layers of polyethylene and the sides roll up for ventilation. Some are heated, other are not. High tunnels give New Hampshire farmers the wiggle room to plant crops that take more time to mature than an average northern New England growing season.
Since securing the 55-acre Heron Pond Farm in 2000, Cantelmo has come to understand an important, sometimes overlooked, additional benefit of high-tunnel use: They help cultivate a new breed of experienced, local farmers.
Cantelmo first employed high tunnels to cash in on an early tomato harvest. By planting tomatoes on April Fool’s Day in his farm’s nine high tunnels Cantelmo can, by Memorial Day, sell ripe Cherokee purples, brandywines, and tomimaru muchos to clientele clamoring for a taste of summer before backyard tomatoes are ready to satisfy the urge. “The financial gain is potentially awesome,” he says, as a single tomato plant growing in a high tunnel can yield twenty pounds of tomatoes versus the ten pounds it could yield if it were growing in the field.
Cantelmo also uses high tunnels from November through March to feed the Seacoast’s growing appetite for locally sourced salad mixes, spinach, arugula, and baby kales during the long, cold winter. To handle the volume of produce growing in all of the tunnels, he maintains a year-round staff of six.
“Keeping the crew employed through the winter means that, come May, I’ve got six other experienced farmers to help manage the [spring and summer] growing season,” said Cantelmo, adding that he would not get the same skilled labor if he hired only seasonal help. He knows most of the crew will eventually leave to work their own land, nearby most likely, “because that is the land they know and understand how to farm.”
Contributing to the growth of high tunnels in New Hampshire is the state’s participation in a federal grant program which subsidizes the cost of high tunnels for farmers who demonstrate a need and agree to provide data to help determine their efficacy in conserving water, improving soil health, increasing yields and reducing transport of pesticides.