NRCS High Tunnel Initiative: All of Your Questions Answered Bootstrap | Bootstrap Farmer

A Bootstrap Farmer Guide to the NRCS High Tunnel Initiative

(NRCS) Natural Resources Conservation Service
(EQIP) Environmental Quality Incentives Program

How to Apply for a NRCS High Tunnel Grant

We walk you through the application process, explaining the documents and what to expect as you go.

Just make your way through each of the tabs below.

Start by printing out the document checklist.

The Bootstrap Farmer NRCS High
Tunnel Initiative Checklist

The Bootstrap Farmer NRCS Paperwork for Initial Agent Contact CheckList
Documents to Print and Fill Out
Print Forms
Introduction to NRCS

Introduction to NRCS:

It’s good to get a basic idea of the goals of the NRCS program. The goal of the high tunnel initiative is to:

“Extend the growing season, improve plant quality and soil quality, reduce nutrient and pesticide transportation, improve air quality through reduced transportation inputs, reduce energy use by providing consumers with a local source of fresh product.”

These will help inform you as you work through the different steps. If you keep your goals in line with their goals you will find it easier to apply for and get grants.

Goals for Crop and Soil Improvements and Conservation 

Under EQIP, High Tunnels are hoop houses made of metal, wood, and plastic. They are to be covered by a 4 year UV resistant greenhouse film. They are intended to cover and protect soil-grown crops from excessive sun, wind, and rain. Seasonal extension is expected as the tunnels' air quality and warmth allow for longer growing periods. 

NRCS Considerations

Integrated Pest Management (IPM)

Physical barriers like high tunnel green houses help keep beneficial insects in and harmful pests out. Physical barriers also help block pollen, chemical drift, and windblown weed seeds. Using a physical barrier reduces the need for chemical pesticides.

Soil Health Through Conservation Planning

Soil health is not only maintained but improved throughout your conservation plan. The soil's living roots help hold rich soil in place. Using cover crops and crop rotation helps to keep life in the soil. These build nutrients and create an active environment for microbes. 

Erosion and Water Control

Creating irrigation, runoff, and erosion plans reduce pooling water, poorly drained soil, and excessive water use. Mulching also helps retain moisture while protecting from soil erosion. 

Local Food

Local food helps reduce food miles while keeping nutritionally rich foods and revenue in the local economy. 

Who Can Apply for an NRCS High Tunnel

Financial and technical assistance is available for those who volunteer to enter the program. Qualifying individuals, legal entities, Native American tribes, and joint operations engaged in agricultural production can all enter the program. Applications are accepted for consideration continuously and awarded throughout the year subject to local deadlines and financial allocations. Applicants must complete program applications and provide supportive eligibility documentation before the cut-off deadline. 

 

About the NRCS & EQIP Programs

The NRCS, an agency within the US Department of Agriculture, offers technical and financial assistance to farmers and ranchers. The focus of the NRCS revolves around conservation efforts of water, soil, through working with private landowners at the state and county levels. Federal resources and funding are divided into states and US territories and are then separated into local county offices.

 

The financial assistance is authorized by the Farm Bill, a law that is renewed every five years. In regards to getting your hoop house possibly funded, all of that information means the following:

 

The USDA employs approximately 100,000 people over 4,500 locations. The NRCS has approximately 1,200 employees covering many programs. 

 

The NRCS' High Tunnel Initiative is one part of the EQIP program which also covers: 

Agronomy, Erosion, Air Quality and Atmospheric Change, Animal Feeding Operations and Confined Animal Feeding Operations, Biology, Conservation Innovation Grants, Conservation Practices, Cultural Resources, Economics, Energy, Engineering, Environmental Compliance, Field Office Technical Guide, Forestry, Maps, Data and Analysis, Nutrient Management, Pest Management, Range and Pasture, Social Sciences, Soils, and Water Resources.

 

This guide is meant, not only to help you through the NRCS funding process but to help illuminate often overlooked factors that can help you get funded. You will walk away with perspectives on fundamentals that will help your agri-business and possibly help others in your area also secure funding.

 

A Voluntary Program

The NRCS High Tunnel Initiative is something you choose to do, a voluntary program.  The program is part of the Federal, State, and Local government with its own process, limitations, and way of doing business. The NRCS is primarily here to help facilitate the conservation of natural resources through educational resources, working with private landowners, and funding various services.The NRCS’ goal is not to subsidize your farm, but to help farmers develop conservation plans and practices.   

 

This agency was not put in place because you are owed anything. If you meet the requirements, if the funding is available, and if you agree to your local agent's terms, you may get funded. You also may find a colleague who is willing to help when other needs or issues arise. 

 

If you dig around the internet while searching for NRCS hoop house eventually, you will run across someone who "refuses to take government handouts or let the Feds onto their land." Great. More funds are now available to those looking to grow their farm, increase their professional network, save water, and build soil resources, all while going through a pretty painless and very non-invasive program that leaves you with a substantial farm asset. By proving you are pleasant to work with, you are very likely to be rewarded by this program and others. 

 

Your Agent and Local Office

From a practical standpoint, we need to understand that:

The NRCS is a small agency within a larger agency.

This means that they are working with set budgets and sets of inflexible rules. It does not mean the rules are not open to interpretation at the local level. Go into the process knowing you will be working with a local human, who is part of your community, who wants to see you succeed while protecting natural resources. 

When dealing with a very busy person, your best chance of success lies in the practice of helping them help you. Do as much research as you can before you contact your local agent. Please, have all of the information they will need ready. 

 

The agent you are working with will be dealing with many projects at once.

 

The agent may or may not have gone through the High Tunnel Initiative Program specifically. Your local area may hire agents based on experience that serves the greater needs of your local area. Your local office most likely receives limited funding based on the immediate needs determined for that local field office. 

It is more common than you think for agents to be doing this for the first time. Remember that many parts of the country may have agricultural and natural resource needs in timber, water conservation, fisheries, commodity mono-crops, orchards, livestock, and grasslands. While the High Tunnel Initiative is under their purview, field officers are most likely concentrating on why they have been hired to that office. They are more than likely educated or hold experience in a particular field. 

Your local extension office agent is likely to be hired with a background that fits your location's needs. This sometimes means that if you are in cattle county where 99% of the agriculture revenue is generated by beef production and you are starting a small mixed vegetable business; your agent may have never seen a small market garden operation. By doing the research and being prepared to help them through the process, they can spend their bandwidth advocating for your funds rather than researching the process for you. 

You can expect more experienced agents if you are in markets with thriving farmers' markets and local food producers. This is a great opportunity for you to talk to your fellow farming community members for insights into your local market's needs and your specific agent's funding process. Try to go in knowing what to expect. Because EQIP is part of the Farm Bill that is updated every five years, you very may well play a part in how your local food economy changes for all farmers by driving increased funding to your area. 

States and local offices are all funded differently based on projected and historical needs. The funding cycles have clear deadlines, and available funding is finite. You may apply anytime throughout the year, but funds are distributed on predetermined schedules that your local agent cannot change. Remember, the schedule of the government may not coincide with your business plan. Have a plan in place for this reality. Furthermore, in any business, try to mitigate putting yourself in situations vulnerable to supply chain fluctuations, delays, funding snafus, or your operation depending solely on someone else. Your business equals your responsibility to forecast and prepare for seasons, market demand, and emergencies beforehand as best you can. 

 

Again, if your agency is in a location where no small market gardening has happened before, there will be little to no funding. You may not get funded the year you apply. However, by working with an agent to help determine your area's changing needs, you may help yourself and others in your area get funding in the future.

Your Application Process

Your Application Process

Initial Research

We feel it is important to go through each page.  In the future updated web links may change but the path to them should follow these steps. 

Note: There is special advance funding available for “Historically Underserved” populations. This covers many groups of people including new farmers, POCs and veterans. It is worth taking a look at the above link if you think you may qualify within one of these groups.

When you are ready, after you have read through this document, you will:

Begin by visiting the NRCS page.

https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/site/national/home/

Under tabs at the top, click on Programs.  

https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/programs/

From the Programs page you will see a “Financial Assistance Programs” section; click Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/programs/financial/eqip/?cid=stelprdb1044009

After reading this page click on “High Tunnel Initiative” which is located near the bottom of the page.

https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/programs/financial/eqip/?cid=stelprdb1046250

By following this page you will find the “Growing All Season: High Tunnel” page.

https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/organic/?cid=nrcseprd1364702

And “Five steps to assistance” at

https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detailfull/national/newsroom/features/?cid=stelprdb1193811

You will find a lot of redundancy and repeated information. Soak it all in. Take notes and remember that your local office may slightly differ in their requirements. Remain flexible to these local adaptations and requirements.  Guidelines are put in place to promote conservation practices while increasing the profitability of your farm.

You might find it confusing as the info may be several years old. However, remember that the Farm Bill is updated every 5 years, and new information takes even longer to find its way to a website. There are also a lot of archived pages (dead links). That is why The Bootstrap Farmer NRCS Checklist (in the resource section) has compiled all of the necessary papers and steps for you. 

We suggest first determining eligibility before starting the paperwork process. You need 3 things to be eligible.

 

For your initial research:

  • An official tax ID (Social Security number or an employer ID)
  • A property deed or lease agreement to show you have control of the property
  • A farm tract number. If you don’t have a farm tract number, check out the section below to find out how to get one.

Why You Need a Farm Number

If you don’t have a farm tract number, you can get one from USDA’s Farm Service Agency. Typically, the local FSA office is located in the same building as the local NRCS office.

The assigned farm number is one of the three ways to identify yourself as a farmer for government purposes

  • Registering your farm means that you get to be in the know regarding newly available programs and funding for your farm. Already having this number, you can easily apply for this assistance. 

Tip:  Get even more updates by joining the FSA's mailing list. 

  • Farm numbers are needed for any applications from the USDA, including: FSA farm loans, disaster assistance, crop insurance, andNRCS programs. ie Environmental Quality Incentive Program
  • With a farm number, your operation will be added into the count for the Agricultural Census. Maintaining accurate representation of the data for your county could translate into more support for the farms in your area. 
  • A farm number also makes you eligible to electFSA County Committee members. The FSA County Committee’s role is to make sure that your county is getting priority and representation.  

Once you have determined that you are eligible you are ready to move on to the next steps.

By filling in the NRCS Checklist in the resource section of this document you will have all the paperwork printed and compiled for the next step: 

 

Beginning the NRCS Paperwork

Now you can begin the paperwork process.

You can find the most recent 2020 updates at:

https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/ny/programs/financial/eqip/?cid=nrcs144p2_027058 

 And at

https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/programs/financial/eqip/?cid=nrcs144p2_037436”



InThe Bootstrap Farmer NRCS Checklist in the resource section of this document you will find links to the following documents:

The Bootstrap Farmer NRCS Paperwork for Initial Agent Contact 

Check List-Documents to Print and Fill Out

    1. BOOTSTRAP FARMER NRCS Checklist

    2. Conservation Program Application (Form  CPA 1200)

    3. Critical Area Planting (Form 342) 

    4. High Tunnel System (Form 325) 

    5. Mulching (Form 484)

    6. Conservation Crop Rotation (328) 

    7. High Tunnel Ranking Questions (Form FY2021)

    8. Commodity Credit Corporation MEMBER’S INFORMATION (Form CCC-901)

    9. Highly Erodible Land Conservation (HELC) and Wetland Conservation (WC) Certification (*Appendix to Form AD-1026)

    10. ENTITY APPLICATION for an AGRICULTURAL LAND EASEMENT (NRCS-CPA-41) 

    11. CONSERVATION PROGRAM CONTRACT (From1202-CPC)

Keep track of where you are in the process. Take notes and remember to collect all the information and documentation that your agent will need. Make a list of any questions you have for them. There is an extended copy of this checklist in the resource section at the end of this document.

Locate the following documents and have copies for your agent:

  • Proof of your control of the land you wish to enroll by providing a lease or a copy of the deed to the property.*
  • Provide your Social Security or Employer Identification Number, and contact information.

    *You may need to check with your county clerk, bank, real estate agent or lawyer for surveys and deeds to your land. 

    To be eligible individual, entity or joint operation applicants:

    • Must be engaged in agricultural production or forestry management, or have an interest in the agricultural or forestry operation being offered for enrollment in EQIP.
    • Must have signature authority to obligate an EQIP contract to a legal entity, joint operation or Indian tribe. Signature authority provides documentation that an individual or individuals are authorized to sign the contract forms on behalf of the entity for EQIP enrollment and payments. Form CCC-901, “Member’s Information”, can be used to document signature authority.
    • Must be in compliance with the highly erodible land (HEL) and wetland conservation (Swampbuster) compliance provisions of the Food Security Act of 1985, as amended. See Form AD-1026 below for details.
    • Must be within appropriate payment limitation requirements as specified in the Food Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (2008 Farm Bill). The 2008 Farm Bill generally limits EQIP payments to a maximum of $300,000 from 2009-2014.

    Talking points to prepare for Conservation Plan and Ranking

    Your agent will have to cover some or all of the forms below. (see The Bootstrap Farmer NRCS High Tunnel Checklist for worksheets: 

    • Critical Area Planting (Form 342)  
    • High Tunnel System (Form 325) 
    • Mulching (Form 484)
    • High Tunnel Ranking Questions (Form FY2021)

    Remember to help your agent help you. By having these forms ready and filled out you show that your project is well prepared and that you have thought through the process. All other qualifications being equal, this advance preparation shows your local agent: You will be the one who is easy to work with(fund).

    These forms are your conservation plan and you must have one to receive funding. We say that knowing some agents may not require them. However, our purpose is to prepare you as best as we can. 

    By working through these worksheets you will do what an alarming amount of new growers do not do - Pay attention to your land before a build. The NRCS was founded to help conserve water and soil from waste and erosion. You now have access to the experience and tools that will help you save these resources on your land. This isn’t busywork. These forms help you watch out for, prevent, and repair where you may run into soil and water issues. Trust us when we say this will save you time, money and heartache in the long run. These forms help you place, build, maintain, and plan for your high tunnel.

    Locating your agent and local office

    Step 1 Find your local office:https://offices.sc.egov.usda.gov/locator/app?agency=nrcs

    Step 2 Click on your State or US Territory

    Step 3 Click on your County or Parrish

    You now have the email, local office phone number, and name of your local agent.

    Step 4 After completing NRCS High Tunnel Initiative Checklist and NRCS Paperwork for Initial Agent Contact CheckList (provided in the resource section of this document) make initial contact with your agent via email with the enclosed documents attached and patiently wait for follow up instruction. Consider giving your agent at least 3 days if not a full week to respond. Remember, these offices have a lot going on and are in the field helping other landowners. Give them time to get with you when they can focus on you.

Initial Farm Visit

Initial Farm Visit

Soil Tests

Some agents will take soil samples on your initial visit. There are two possible reasons for this. They want to ensure their investment is protected and that it will yield successful results.  Remember that the NRCS’ primary goal is to invest into conservation efforts. This is something you can have prepared for the agent before the meeting, accompanied by a plan for soil regeneration.

Structural Soil Test

For High Tunnels, engineers base their snow and wind loads on a host of factors, including the tensile strength* & yield strength** of the metal and suggested construction from the manufacturer. The effectiveness of ground posts are affected by the soil type they are anchored into.  The soil classification will determine whether or not ground anchors or added cement are needed. Therefore it is important to know what your soil profile is before you place any posts. And to be aware of the tensile strength of the metal used in your kit.

Viability Soil Test

The other reason a soil test may be doing is to make sure the soil is viable for planting. At the very least an amendment program can be discussed to help the soil reach its full potential for growth. 

Soil Types

Hoophouse Ground Posts and Soil Types

Sand

Sandy soil is formed from the breakdown and weathering of rocks. These tiny particles are formed from various quartz, limestone, and granite. The gritty texture of sand is ideal for a building site because it allows proper drainage, while retaining its structural integrity. When compacted, the irregular shaped particles in the sand fit together, adding extra strength. 

 

Loam

Loamy soils are a mix of sand and clay consisting of organic material, sand, and clay. They are considered adequate for building on, but less desirable than sandy soil. Loamy soil often has a large amount of undecomposed matter. As this matter decomposes, inconsistencies in the ground may occur.  

 

Clay

Clay soil is formed from the smallest particles of the three main soil types. It is prone to expanding and contracting with the seasons as it holds water very well. This often means that buildings placed on clay soils will “sink” over time. Our hoop houses are engineered, assuming a soil bearing pressure 1,500 PSF. If you are on an expansive clay soil, you may be required to sink your ground posts in concrete for stability and longevity. Keep in mind that all concrete needs to be 3,000 PSI minimum.

 

Chalk

Chalky soil, similar to clay soil, consists of extra-fine particles from limestone and other alkaline rocks. Chalky soil is ideal for building because it does not hold water or lose shape due to water loss.

 

Bedrock

Bedrock is the hard, solid rock layer beneath the topsoil. It often serves as parent material for other soil types. Bedrock is resistant to movement and impermeable to water, making it an ideal foundation for any build. 

 

*Tensile Strength - “Tensile by definition means capable of being drawn out or stretched. Tensile strength is the resistance of steel to breaking under tensile tension. It’s used to specify the point when steel goes from elastic (temporary) to plastic (permanent) deformation. Usually, it’s measured in units of force per cross-sectional area. Once a piece of steel is pulled past its tensile stress point, it will split apart. Tensile strength will show us how much tensile stress the steel can withstand until it leads to failure in two ways: ductile or brittle failure.Ductile failure– think of this as the preliminary stage of failure, where it is pushed beyond the yield point to permanent deformation.Brittle failure– this is the final stage where the tensile strength measurement is taken. In essence, tensile strength is measured by the maximum stress that the steel can withstand while being stretched or pulled before breaking.” (1)

**Yield Strength - “Yield strength is the maximum stress that can be applied before it begins to change shape permanently. This is an approximation of the elastic limit of the steel. If stress is added to the metal but does not reach the yield point, it will return to its original shape after the stress is removed. When the stresses exceed the yield point, the steel will not be able to bounce back. Yield strength represents the upper limit of the load that can be safely applied to the metal, which makes it a very important number to know when designing components.” (1)

  1. Clifton Steel. (2010). Tensile Strength VS. Yield Strength. Retrieved fromhttps://www.cliftonsteel.com/knowledge-center/tensile-and-yield-strength/

 

What to Do After Submitting Your NRCS Paperwork

What to Do After Submitting Your NRCS Paperwork?

Remember that the wait to get funded can be quite long. There is a funding window that can vary from office to office. Murphy’s Law consistently shows that as deadlines for applications get closer your agent may be inundated with applications from procrastinators. Get you paperwork - all of it - correctly filled out with supporting documents to your agent in a timely manner and let the system work. Remember, the NRCS is not set up with your timeline as it’s main motivator. DO NOT rely on this grant or timing of any agent, supplier, or weather to determine the success of your farm. 

Let’s go over that again as it is a universal truth to everything you will deal with as a farmer from here on out. 

DO NOT rely on this grant or timing of any agent, supplier, or the weather to determine the success of your farm. 

Funding

Your agent will go over the funding process with you. The points to be sure your agent covers are:

  • Funding Schedule for your office
  • Your deadlines and goals to maintain funding
  • What happens when situations change

Your local field office funds grants on a predetermined schedule.  When applying for funding, be aware that while your project may qualify, you may need to wait for the next funding round for your grant, depending on the availability of the funds at that time. Your agent will be a good resource for this information. Be sure to ask where you are in the funding cycle.

To get a preview of a NRCS Conservation Program Contract view “APPENDIX TO FORM NRCS-CPA-1202 CONSERVATION PROGRAM CONTRACT” in the downloadable PDF part of this document. 

NRCS form 1202-CPC covers every single part of your obligations and what to expect. 

Failing to meet these guidelines could result in the termination of your funding, leaving you responsible to repay the grant.

High Tunnel Considerations

High Tunnel Considerations:

Comparing Apples to Apples When Shopping

When you are researching kits to build your hoop house there are a number of factors to consider when comparing the cost vs. performance of the end product.

What type of metal is used - At Bootstrap Farmer we use all 16 gauge steel with a Flo-Coat layer for added strength and longevity. Many kits use a thinner gauge of steel that is more susceptible to damage. Uncoated steel is more likely to rust.

What is the Country of Origin - Many of our customers place a high value on supporting American manufacturing. All of our large scale steel and aluminum parts are made in Texas - helping with lead times and quality control. 

 

Do you need to buy wood or additional hardware - The price and availability of lumber can fluctuate greatly from year to year and across the country. If the kit you select requires you to purchase lumber locally cost and availability should factor into your financial planning.

Do you need to buy & construct endwalls and doors - Bootstrap Farmer’s all inclusive kits come with pre-build endwalls that only require assembly, taking the guesswork out of the dreaded endwall build. 

How shipping is figured - Many companies charge additional shipping on heavy products. Here at Bootstrap Farmer all of our kits ship free to the contiguous 48 states.

What is the bow spacing- You will find that the bow spacing in hoop house designs range between 4-6 ft.  We highly recommend the added stability of the 4 ft spacing found in our kits. 

Are you going to add options & upgrades - Many available upgrades are specific to manufacturers and are designed to streamline your build while adding value.  Being familiar with these options will make it easier as you are forming a plan for IPM and season extension. Approval and funding will be determined by each individual field office.  Remember, approval does not equate to funding, but integrating these options into your planning early on will help you to make your desired upgrades part of your overall conservation plan.

Customer service after purchase - Does the company get back to you when you have a question. Will they provide you with support after you have made your purchase.

Does the hoop house come with a manufacturer's warranty?  If so, will it cover the duration, typically up to 5 years, of your contract with NRCS.  The NRCS is going to require that your supplier has such a warranty.

If all of this is overwhelming you, we have compiled a collection of some of our most frequently asked questions. You can take a break to review the basics here:

 

Prequel to Starting a Build

At Bootstrap Farmer, we field many calls from people looking to build their first hoop house. We get questions from every possible type of person. Often this is the biggest construction project that folks have taken on, so there are naturally many questions. People are terrified of making a mistake. Given the job hoop houses have of protecting valuable crops and significant upfront investment, we certainly understand how important it is to build it right the first time.Read more

Building Materials

High tunnels are constructed using several different building materials, including PVC (not recommended), various gauges of metal, and wood. Building materials vary in price and durability. It is up to the farmer to decide whether a larger upfront investment for a stronger structure makes sense for their operation.  A heavier gauge metal will last season after season, but comes with a higher upfront cost. If you are in an area that has a higher snow-load this added expense is worth the added security you get from a stronger structure.

The environmental conditions ultimately should be the deciding factor for high tunnel construction. High tunnels have optional upgrades available that help to maintain a comfortable plant and working environment. These upgrades and any other customization can be added in with the kit or added later as you can more clearly assess your environmental needs.

High Tunnel Orientation

Once you've received approval for your structure, decide on a layout that allows for unobstructed sunlight, proper drainage, access to water, access to electricity, and is set away from other buildings to avoid snowdrifts and water pooling.  

Permitting and Zoning

Before beginning any construction stages, you will want to confirm that the structure is allowed per your area's zoning. You will want to locate all zoning, permitting requirements, and covenants/HOA for your property; if your zoning requires a building permit, secure that before starting the build. 

Site Prep

It is important to prepare the site before erecting the high tunnel structure. You may require extra labor and equipment for this step. A skid-steer may be needed to create a watershed around the structure if the area is known for flooding. Or maybe the site needs to be leveled? Consider what type of labor and equipment is necessary for the project and budget for it.

Leveling a Greenhouse

Ground Anchors

We have had reports of agents requiring a certain brand of ground anchor. While not included initially in most kits on the market, they are not expensive and can be ordered separately. The flexibility of working with your agent when they need to add simple requirements is a great mindset to come to the NRCS table with.

Soil Amendments

The site might also require some soil amendment. After collecting a soil sample, a plan may need to be put into place to regenerate the life into your soil before planting into it. Soil amendments can be made using a combination of cover cropping techniques, compost, and/or chemical fertilizers.  

Raised Beds

Another consideration for your high tunnel is the addition of raised beds. According to the NRCS guidelines, these are allowed to be no higher than 12". Raised beds help with drainage, containing soil, and ease of harvest and weeding. They are an added expense to consider.

Irrigation

When selecting the location for your hoop house, water supply is very important. Next, you will need to decide how you will water your crops. Drip irrigation can be added in the early stages before planting. Irrigation promotes water conservation and a more even distribution of water for your crops throughout the season.

Ground Covers

Ground covers also help to retain moisture inside of the high tunnel—ground covers coupled with drip irrigation help to manage weed growth within the beds. Ground covers should be installed before constructing the high tunnel. We recommend choosing a durable, 5 oz woven polypropylene fabric with UV additives. Landscape fabrics help manage weed pressure and are often used to create a template for the crop layout. Use a weed burner to burn holes in the material for each plant. Burning the fabric prevents fraying.

Doors

There are different options available for door placement and size. You will need to determine whether a single door or double door should be installed in your high tunnel. A double door is ideal for ease of harvest but is an added expense. Measure any carts that you will want to bring in and out of your high tunnel to determine if you will need a single (36") or double door (72"). 

Roll-up Sides

Ventilation is crucial for the success of many market crops. An optional upgrade available is the roll-up side. This hand-crank system allows you to vent from the sides of your hoop house. This upgrade can help control the temperatures during high heat by increasing air circulation for your crops. Insect netting can be added to the system using the existing lock channel and additional spring wire.  

Rollup Sides Insect Nettings Hoop House

Shade Cloth

Shade cloth is an optional add on that can be installed using spring wire directly into your existing lock channels. The use of shade cloth cools the structure and diffuses the sun's UV Rays into a more usable form for the plants. We suggest using 30-50% shade for most market crops.

 

Vents, Circulation Fans and Heaters

Some agents allow equipment, some do not. We have not come across a solid reason for this discrepancy other than this type of leniency is exactly why making and maintaining a positive working relationship can be so important. 

Keep in mind that your agent may ALLOW it but may not FUND it. If you plan to make “improvements” to your approved kit make sure you discuss and get approval prior to building.

Passive Vents

Non-powered vents can come in many sizes. The square or rectangle gable vents found in roofing and insulation departments in hardware stores are mostly made from vinyl or galvanized metal. They often have a screen built in to keep out birds and critters but not necessarily insects. 

These vents can easily be added into your endwalls by framing them in or attaching directly to greenhouse film with lock channel and spring wire. Simply attach the lock channel to the lip of the vent with small stainless steel machine bolts. With a partner you can then press/hold the vent on the inside of your end wall and wiggle wire the front. Finally, cut out the greenhouse film and allow hot air to seep out. 

Consider adding to both ends to allow wind naturally to flow in and out of the tunnel as hot air escapes. Placing the vents close to the top lets the hottest air escape. 

Roll-up sides, as discussed above, are also an example of passive air flow exchanges. By adding insect netting you reduce labor and expense of fighting pests, weed seeds blowing in, and cross-pollination. 

Powered Vents

Again, double check that electricity will be allowed by your agent. Also consider the powersource. Running electrical may add unexpected expense to your project. 

Powered intake and exhaust fans are either manually controlled by an on/off switch or controlled by a thermostat 

Circulation Fans, or exhaust fans, improve the air within the high tunnel by refreshing stagnant air and reducing temperature and humidity variations. Air circulation helps move the plants gently, which also helps pollination of fruiting crops as well as part of any IPM (Integrated Pest Management) program. 

Attaching Vents to Greenhouse

Passive Heat

There are a variety of options for using passive solar heat in high tunnel greenhouses. Most make use of thermal mass to collect heat from the sun during the day and passively release it overnight. These include solar batteries made of black painted water drums or ground to air heat exchange climate battery systems. Since most of these systems are DIY projects that can take up quite a bit of space in your greenhouse, we recommend doing independent research if you are thinking of trying to incorporate one of these. It bears repeating here: Keep in mind that your agent may ALLOW it but may not FUND it.

Active Heat

With any heat source (natural gas, propane, electric, wood), there will, of course, be ongoing seasonal fuel costs. 

Natural Gas/Propane

With natural gas and the more likely to be available propane, there will be an initial utility hook up cost. You may have to run service lines, lease/buy propane tanks, permits, pay for hook up, and additional parts to buy like wiring, electrical parts, pipe. 

If the heater does not come with a thermostat, you will have to purchase and wire that to the heater as well. You will also need to vent the fumes out as well. Your plants might like CO2, but workers will be in a very dangerous, if not deadly, environment unless proper ventilation is considered. This is why we suggest using a licensed local HVAC contractor. 

If Propane will be delivered make sure those big delivery trucks can get to the tank without rutting up your farm or get stuck causing further land damage. 

Electric Heat

Electric utility heaters are heat sources that force an electric current through an element that generates heat. Electric heaters are typically fan-forced, passing air over the heating element or a convection style that works by exchanging the heat with the air next to it. Both heat options are ideal for small spaces because they are portable and do not require venting. 

Wood Heat

Some farmers may choose to use a wood burning stove. On property fuel sources may make this an attractive option. Considerations include:

  • Labor to cut, split, feed the stove continuously
  • Storage to dry and store wood
  • Extra square footage that the stove, vents, and hot air directly around the stove will need.
  • Heat source cannot be near the plastic and requires careful venting 
  • The risks of open flame in a plastic structure
  • Uneven temperature pockets without circulation fans
  • The inability to set a thermostat



Greenhouse Film, Take it off or Leave it on

Some agents will want a plan for taking the plastic off in the winter because of a snow load concern. If your area is historically prone to frequent, wet, and deep snow storms the NRCS may want you to take off your plastic for fear of collapse under the weight of the snow. 

Another time to remember that this program wasn’t designed to keep your farm profitable year round. The goal of the high tunnel initiative is to:

 “Extend the growing season, improve plant quality and soil quality, reduce nutrient and pesticide transportation, improve air quality through reduced transportation inputs, reduce energy use by providing consumers with a local source of fresh product.”

Four season production is not in their goal set. To gain a hoop house to do whatever you want with you have two choices. 

Play by the rules in which you volunteer to be a part of through the NRCS program. 

Or

Pay for your own and do as you wish. 

If you plan to take off the film consider leaving a bit more plastic than what one would normally trim around the lock channel and spring wire. You will need enough plastic to help pull tight enough to reinstall. 

Consider storing your plastic neatly in a tote you can seal varmets, dust, and accidents out of in the off season. A quality 6 Mil UV treated piece of greenhouse specific plastic is a requirement because it can withstand the process of on again off again seasonal use. If you trash it you will be paying for replacements out of pocket. 

Seasonal Considerations

Consider your crop’s return on investment when thinking about heat. For example, if there are no winter markets in your area or viable sales channels, you may want to cover crop during the winter months. If you cover crop, there are plenty of crops that can take the cold without heat. Unless you are selling winter crops for profit, reconsider worrying about expensive initial heat set up and the ongoing expense of supply fuel. 

Cover crops help to cycle nutrients in the soil and improve the overall quality of the soil. After receiving the results of your soil test, you will be able to determine what cover crops will benefit your soil best, whether you need to add legumes for nitrogen-fixing or if you just need to hold down your soil while creating more soil matter. Cover crops store nutrients and cycle them back into the soil after their life cycle. The best way to ensure that nutrients stay in your soil is to develop a proper cover-crop plan. 

Fall seeding cover crops help to build the soil over the winter and prevent any soil loss. 



Cover Crop Examples

  • Cereal rye- Large root mass, which is great for building matter. It is an annual winter crop that can be tilled in or directly planted into.

  • Hairy vetch- Nitrogen fixing legume that helps build soil matter.

  • Daikon radish- Works both as a cultivator (deep tap roots) and as storage for extra nitrogen, to be later released in the plant's life cycle. 

  • Winter peas-  Fast growing, winter cover crop for fixing nitrogen.

  • Buckwheat- Fast growing, attracts beneficial insects.

  • Winter triticale- A cross between winter rye and winter wheat, great for planting in the fall for ground cover and useful for adding mass and erosion control. 

  • Sweet clover- Nitrogen fixing legume, ideal cover crop and for intercropping.

  • Fava beans- winter cover with good nitrogen fixing capabilities 

  • Sudan grass- for building biomass.

  •  Barley- great for weed suppression and adding mass.
Your Obligation to NRCS

Your Obligation to NRCS:

After you have had your post-build inspection visit, you will most likely have zero interaction with your agent. There may be reporting to be turned in yearly. This can include crops, yields, and general reporting on maintenance. Don’t make your agent have to pry these out of you. Keep up with your paperwork and reports so the next time you work with the NRCS they know you are a professional and are a pleasure to do business with. This is a financial business transaction that you have signed and are responsible for. 

You are also obligated to maintain the NRCS’ asset that is in your possession and then transferred to you after your grant timeline ends. This is a good way to think of this. Until you pass the expiration date of your agreement the building is not yours, but it is under your care. Therefore routine maintenance of the building is required and completely your responsibility. 

Maintenance

Oil the door hinges and check for tears in the plastic. Have greenhouse film repair tape on hand. Keep animals, kids, and equipment from the tunnel the same as you would keep them away from anything of value. A little damage can go a long way on the farm. Accidents do happen. When they do, make a quick plan to repair/replace. Be sure to notify your agent of the situation via email. Give them an all-clear email when the repairs are complete. It’s doubtful they will get up in arms about it, but they will for sure appreciate clear communications that do not ask them for anything. Always communicate via email so that both you and your agent have a written record. If a phone conversation happens, a quick email highlighting the talk serves to remind both parties of what was said and understood. If there was a misunderstanding, this is a pain-free way to resolve the issue before it gets out of hand.

Is all of this a bit excessive? Probably. However, we deal with all types of personalities, skill levels, motivations and regional differences enough to know that documented communication is almost always the difference between sometimes costly mistakes and a small tweak to make everyone's life easier. 

Aside from the paperwork and building you are also to adhere to your: 

Conservation Plan (Referring to Form 342- Critical Area Planting).

“DEFINITION Establishing permanent vegetation on sites that have, or are expected to have, high erosion rates, and on sites that have physical, chemical or biological conditions that prevent the establishment of vegetation with normal practices. “

Form 342 wants you to have a plan in place to replace any vegetation disturbed during your build. You will need to have a plan for the runoff of the high tunnel during and after a rain to prevent erosion and standing water. 

“A combination of vegetative and structural measures using living and inert material shall be used when flow velocities, soils, and bank stability preclude stabilization by vegetative establishment alone.”

We cover this in theTalking Points to Prepare for Conservation Plan and Rankingsection. This is just your reminder that it is very much a part of the larger ongoing part of your grant. 

Approval Visit

Your approval visit will consist of your agent checking off your work order and general inspection of your hoop house. It usually does not last too long. 

Post Grant Options

When your obligations are fulfilled you can then change your hoop house any way you like as the asset is unceremoniously transferred from the NRCS to you. Our bet is in the end you don't make many changes unless you are converting over to hydroponic operations. After 3-5 years of use you will become quite proficient and will have found what your clients want. 

The Bootstrap Farmer NRCS High Tunnel Initiative Checklist

The Bootstrap Farmer NRCS Paperwork for Initial Agent Contact Check List-Documents to Print and Fill Out

    1. BOOTSTRAP FARMER NRCS Checklist

    2. Conservation Program Application (Form  CPA 1200)

    3. Critical Area Planting (Form 342) 

    4. High Tunnel System (Form 325) 

    5. Mulching (Form 484)

    6. Conservation Crop Rotation (328) 

    7. High Tunnel Ranking Questions (Form FY2021)

    8. Commodity Credit Corporation MEMBER’S INFORMATION (Form CCC-901)

    9. Highly Erodible Land Conservation (HELC) and Wetland Conservation (WC) Certification (*Appendix to Form AD-1026)

    10. ENTITY APPLICATION for an AGRICULTURAL LAND EASEMENT (NRCS-CPA-41) 

    11. CONSERVATION PROGRAM CONTRACT (From1202-CPC)

Find your local office/agent:

https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/contact

Additional Reading 

The hands down essential guide book for hoop house production isThe Greenhouse and Hoophouse Grower's Handbook: Organic Vegetable Production Using Protected Culture by Andrew Mefford

For information on total projects funded:https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/NRCS_RCA/reports/fb08_cp_eqip.html

Frequently Asked Questions About the NRCS Program

Frequently Asked Questions About the NRCS Program:

How do I keep my hoop house warm enough to grow citrus into the fall/winter?

With any fruit-bearing trees and bushes, the first thing you would want to check is how many chill hours the variety you are looking at requires. Is there even a need to put the trees under cover?

If you are reading this, there is a good chance you are wanting to grow for profit. If you are wanting to grow an avocado tree in Michigan because you want to say you have the only local avocados available, do not be surprised that you might be the only person who finds that compelling enough to pay many thousands times the going price. The point is this is putting the cart before the horse. Many fruit crops need to be outside and exposed to a certain amount of cumulative chill/freeze hours for the season. If you import crop stock from another region, make sure your market research gives you overwhelming reasons to make this a part of your business plan. 

A hobby grower can do this kind of activity for the sheer joy in it if they can afford to. If you build a business around kitsch, you may find that repeat local sales will be an uphill battle. 

Should I use shade cloth on my high tunnel? When should I remove the shade cloth for the season?

Shade cloth is definitely a must-have for hoop house growing and may even be a requirement by your agent. It helps reduce the heat and keeps the environment comfortable for the farmer and the crops by reducing UV radiation.

Shade cloth is easy to install and take off as needed either withshade cloth clips or lock channel and spring wire. The timing of shade cloth removal is entirely dependent on your local climate. Short answer, remove it when you want to take advantage of the extra heat generated by the sun.

Is there an acreage requirement for the NRCS grant?

No acreage requirement is specified, but you have to set up in an area clear of utilities, easements, and property lines. You also need to be able to provide proof that you are in control of the property. This can either be as the owner or as the lease-holder.

What direction should I face my hoop house?

If you are located above 40 degrees N latitude, east-west orientation is ideal as it allows for the winter sun to penetrate the structure without being blocked by the frame.  

Hoop House Orientation North

If you are located below 40 degrees N latitude, north-south orientation works best.  The winter sun is much higher at these latitudes, so the risk of shading out the structure is far less.

Hoop House Orientation South

This is a general guide, it is a good idea to pay attention to the proposed building site’s sunlight exposure and shading patterns throughout the seasons.  You will want to focus on a location that has minimal sun obstruction of the winter sun. You may need to adjust your orientation to avoid shade from other structures or large trees. 

What’s your biggest tip for squaring off the hoop house?

Patience. It can be frustrating to walk back and forth as you square your greenhouse. 

Depending on your personality and affinity for math, there are two ways to square your hoop house. 

Most DIY greenhouses structures measure 90 degrees on the corners. Measure the distance between these corners diagonally.  Compare the measurements, making sure that they are equal. 

OR

Calculate the distance using the formula A2 + B2 = C2

Squaring a Hoop House

Pythagorean theorem - A (length of one side) (squared) + B (length of second side) (squared)= C length required to make the third side of the triangle (squared)

Take your time and know that, while as exciting as it is to get started, it is vitally important to get the squaring right. 

What’s your opinion about setting the heavy duty metal greenhouse with concrete in the ground post holes? How much concrete is needed?

Some soil types may require setting your poles in concrete. Your agent will guide you to the specs that they will require. 

Generally speaking, you want a cement that will harden to at least 3000 PSI. Local building codes will give better local direction as they will take into consideration local soil structure. If you are electing to use concrete (concrete is more durable than cement) to secure your posts rather than driving posts into the ground with a post driver, you will do so in a hole at least 10” wide. 

Some people choose to only set the corner posts in concrete. 

Overbuilding is a character trait for some folks and for the others, we say trust your gut. If a few extra hours and $100 worth of concrete helps you sleep better at night- do it. Think about your farm’s location, wind patterns, and ask your neighbors for advice. 

Can I bend a 14 ft hoop with my 12 ft. hoop bender?

A hoop bender is designed to bend the length it is designed to bend. It's a radius/length calculation paired with the correct pipe lengths as suggested by the instructions. 

You can’t put a gallon and a half of water into a gallon jug. It wasn’t designed for it. 

How long will my plastic last?

From NRCS qualifications:

“Select the high tunnel covering material of a significant thickness to withstand the temperature change for the period required and shall have a 4-year-minimum lifespan. For polyethylene covers, use a minimum 6-mil greenhouse grade, UV-resistant material.” -CODE 325-CPS-1

This plastic isn’t available just anywhere. Greenhouse grade plastic generally, at the very least, has these attributes and specifications. The NRCS doesn't want you getting your film from Joe Bob Smith’s Hardware Emporium as it will shred under the stress of wind and UV exposure within just a few months. 

Greenhouse film may also have diffusion and anti-condensation built in. Diffusion means the light is muted and scattered. The difference for the plants, as well as the workers, is in how the light is scattered throughout the greenhouse similar to how a lampshade would help scatter light around the room in your home. If diffusion wasn’t included, it would be like staring directly at a light bulb or standing under the direct sun with clear glass overhead. It would burn the plants and be very uncomfortable for the farmer. 

Anti Condensation (applied on the inside side of the film) helps moisture in the greenhouse roll down the sides of the roof and walls instead of dripping on the plant leaves & fruit, reducing water damage.  

Should my endwall be solid or plastic?

Most hoop houses use the same plastic to cover the end walls as is used to cover the rest of the structures. If you decide you need a solid end wall, make sure it is on the north side as it will get the least amount of sunlight. Solid end walls can be constructed out of wood, however to get the most available light, we suggest looking into polycarbonate sheets for your end wall material.  

When properly secured with lock channel and spring wire, greenhouse film is very strong and can withstand significant wind loads. Single 6 mil film has an estimated R-Value of, what we believe to be a very generous estimate, 1.5. 

If you have made the investment to install a heater, you may want to consider a solid wall. However, the nature of the high tunnel is for seasonal extension. In temperate climates, four season for-profit farming can be achieved with cold season crop selections. 

A lot of hoop house questions can be answered when starting out by considering the intended crops and what your motivation is to plant it at certain times of the year. 

Oh, one more thing. Do not use siding, plywood or chipboard that isn’t meant for outside exposure. These materials will delaminate as the glue fails in the elements. If you are going to spend the time and effort, don't cheap out on the 1 yard line. 

Endwall Hoophouse

Would you recommend gable vents? Why?

If allowed, a simple passive vent is a low cost option to further enhance the circulation of your house especially when using roll-up sides. When installing the vent, we recommend placing them above the door to help dump the hot air that accumulates at the top of the house. 

Don’t emulate commercial greenhouses that keep their vents in the middle of the walls. Those vents are most likely drawing air through a wet wall on the other side of the greenhouse through the vegetation. This greenhouse practice is so far away from the hoop house design that we didn’t cover it in detail in this NRCS document. It’s like putting a bidet in an RV.

Should I cover-crop through the winter in my hoop house?

If you are not growing for profit, you should be investing in nutrient replenishment through cover cropping during the winter season. Part of your NRCS agreement is keeping living roots in the soil.  

How do I keep the snow off the hoop house in the winter?

The method we have seen success with, other than knowing it is part of your daily chores during a snow event is: 

Keep a rope long enough to go over the top of the hoop house. Two people can run the rope from one side of the other lengthwise on top of the plastic. This action will break off the snow and it will run down the side. 

Ideally, you will remove this accumulation of snow so it is not pressing up against the side of the hoop house. 

How do I let pollinators into my hoop house?

First consider the non-open pollinated variety of fruiting crops. There are many excellent varieties, specifically bred (non-GMO) to produce much higher yields in hoop houses and greenhouses. These delicious varieties are known as F-1.

“F1 Hybrid seeds are the result of a cross between two genetically distinct parent plant lines. The plants grown from these seeds will usually show more vigor than either of the two parent plants, and often more vigor and uniformity than similar non-hybrid (standard) varieties. To create a hybrid (F1), traditional breeding methods are used that involve the cross-pollination of two parent varieties that were selected for specific traits.

Commercially, hybrid seed must be produced by the seed producer each year by crossing the inbred parents. Inbred parents are used because they express characteristics uniformly, and this uniformity is also seen in the F1 hybrid plants — F1 referring to "first filial" or first generation after the cross.

Natural crossing in the field may also result in useful hybrids. However, the F2 or second generation after the cross, grown from seeds saved from F1 hybrid plants, will not be uniform, and in fact often will have numerous different types as a result of genetic segregation.” -Johnny's Selected Seeds

These F1 seeds do not require pollinators to thrive. 

How much do the roll-up sides cool down the hoop house?

A better way to think of temperature is this: In the summer, roll-up sides can help keep the inside of the hoop house within 5° of outside ambient temperature. 

If you really want to talk about cooling, especially non-powered, think of layers. 

Roll-up sides, shade cloth and gable vents all can reduce the greenhouse effect inside of the hoop house. Shade cloth also helps reduce radiation keeping working conditions tolerable. Greenhouse film diffuses the light while keeping wind and rain from beating up crops. 

Why are wider high tunnels more successful at holding heat than narrow ones?

When thinking about air mass, a larger area has a higher holding capacity for heat. This means less dramatic and frequent temperature spikes as the sun rises and falls. 

Think about when you go camping and wake up with the sunrise heating up your tent to uncomfortable levels fast. The less cubic feet the faster heat rises and the faster it dissipates. 

If you're not comfortable neither are your plants. Besides, as a successful farmer you will need more room to grow as your business expands. We have never spoken to anyone who wanted a smaller hoop house!

Average amount of crop cycles to recoup the cost?

This is a variety, market, and business plan equation more than a hoop house equation. Can a hoop house enhance your growing, no doubt. But unless you are selling for profit, repeatedly, a crop people want in an efficient way it may take many cycles. 

This also brings up a point. When asking questions like this, it is common to forget that hoop houses come in many sizes, are built in many different growing zones, are planted with all sorts of different soil conditions, run by different levels of competence, and a host of endless other variables. Remember that details and context mean all the difference in the world.

What would be a good layout/plant spacing for my hoop house?  

Consider rows running the length of the hoop house. Taller crops should not block shorter crops or be up against the wall. Experience will play a vital role in your planting spacing and row layout from year to year. Try looking up your crop and layout in Google and see if any examples seem right to you. Any crop arrangement requires careful planning. Planning and getting seeds and supplies ordered in time, before everyone starts ordering mid January from supply houses is always a good business practice. 

Don’t let supply chains, manufacturing, or procrastination keep you from what you need. 

How many high tunnels have been approved by NRCS since the program started?

Here is some info from the NRCS

If you want to request a report that can be donehere.

Do you need screw anchors or tee posts installed at an angle to hold down my hoop house?

If your agent requests it. Some people choose to put them in on their own. Trust your gut.

How do I keep water from pooling up in my hoop house after I water my plants? 

By proper site dirt work and grading, proper run-off planning, and not over watering. Your agent can help you with all of this. 

Diverting Water from Hoop House with French Drain

Diverting Water from Hoop House Runoff

How much funding does the NRCS grant?

As of this document (September 2020) we are seeing an average allotment of $3.15 per sq. foot being reported to us by farmers who have been approved. This varies by office and state. 

Interestingly, the NRCS funds in square feet and suggests sizes in 30’ wide structures. Producers can request 20’ or 14’ buildings and go longer. We have even worked with a farmer who was allowed to build two 20’x60’ houses instead of the first suggested 30’x80’. Don’t be afraid to ask your agent about the structure arrangement you really want to build. 

NRCS on Bootstrap Farmer Radio

Dive Deeper in All Things NRCS with Nick and Piper

Nick & Piper go over Bootstrap Farmer's new resource NRCS High Tunnel Initiative All Questions Answered. The initiative is about the NRCS's grant program that funds high tunnels for farmers.This deep dive covers everything from the application to the last day of your obligation to the NRCS.

Bootstrap Farmer Radio

USA Made High Tunnels

Final Thoughts

There will always be questions over the NRCS programs and these structures. Hopefully we have given you the frameworks to find the answers we didn't cover. When in doubt about the program, ask your agent. When in doubt about your structure build and specifications ask your manufacturer.

This reference is provided by Bootstrap Farmer. We are at your service at: contact@bootstrapfarmer.com


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