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High tunnels serves as focus of conference

Terrance Nennich speaks at the North Dakota State University High Tunnel Conference in Fargo, N.D. Trevor Peterson / Forum News Service1 / 4
The use of high tunnels for expanding the growing season is gaining in popularity. (Pixabay photo)2 / 4
Tim Geinert3 / 4
Terrance Nennich4 / 4

FARGO — Tim Geinert saw both need and opportunity. So the Nortonville, N.D., high-tunnel operator approached extension officials and others with a proposal for a multi-day educational session on high tunnels. They thought it was a good idea.

"There's a lot of opportunity here, I think. But there's also a need for more information," Geinert said.

Geinert was among the 80 people who attended the North Dakota State University Extension Service high-tunnel conference March 24-25 on the NDSU campus in Fargo. Other attendees came from Minnesota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Montana and and Canada. Most of the speakers were extension specialists or people active in the high-tunnel industry.

The session featured practical information on topics such as scouting for insect pests and trellising vine crops, as well as the the opportunity to meet other people involved in the industry.

Esther McGinnis, an NDSU extension horticulturist who helped to organize the event, said organizers were pleased — but not surprised — by reaction from high-tunnel operators, both current and potential.

"There's a real grassroots demand for this," she said. "We're extension, and we respond."

High tunnels — low-cost, plastic-covered buildings that resemble greenhouses— allow producers to extend their growing season in both spring and fall. That's especially useful on the Northern Plains, given the region's relatively short growing season.

The longer growing season allows operators to increase their production, giving them more to sell at farmers markets, grocery stores, restaurants and school districts than more fruits and vegetables grown in the structure. The structures can pay for themselves in as little as two years, advocates say.

Restaurants, in particular, are a growing market for produce sold in high tunnels, said Terry Nennich, a retired University of Minnesota extension educator and long-time advocate of high tunnels who spoke at the NDSU conference.

Minnesota has an estimated 2,000 to 2,500 high-tunnel operations. High tunnels, also known as hoop houses, have been promoted in the state for 15 years, in large part because Minnesota's urban markets offer more potential customers to buy produce grown in them.

There's no good estimate of high-tunnel operations in lightly populated North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana, though the combined number is almost certainly much lower than Minnesota's.

The number is certainly growing in South Dakota, said Don Joske, sales representative with BFG Supply Co. in Sioux Falls, S.D. He helped to organize the NDSU event, at which he also spoke.

High tunnels are the fastest-growing segment of horticulture, he said.

High tunnels, among other advantages, are an opportunity for families and individuals to generate income that helps them stay on the family farm or live in a rural area, he said.

"It's the excitement of being able to be a small entrepreneur," Joske said. "And it's reconnecting families."

Geinert and his wife, Joanne, along with their son, Joshua, operate Geinert Gardens. Tim and Joanne — who live in the house in which Tim grew up — have off-farm jobs. Joshua, now a college student, began the business as an FFA project in 2013 while still in high school.

The business, which now has two high tunnels, grows many crops, including tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, cantaloupe and squash.

"We enjoy the work. And it is work," Tim Geinert said. "But it's satisfying."

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