The hour fell back, marking the end of daylight savings, and the sustainability crew headed toward Ames, Iowa, for a High Tunnel short course! This was a great opportunity for our sustainability program to learn more about high tunnels so we can apply the information we learn to the one we have on campus.
We refer to our high tunnel on campus as a “hoop house,” which is the same thing just a different name. It resides on the EcoPlot and helps us grow produce that is taken to the Commons to be incorporated in meals. Hoop houses, or high tunnels, are made up of large hoops; ours are made from metal. Over these hoops, a layer of greenhouse plastic is stretched to cover it. The hoop house lets us extend our growing season so we can keep bringing fresh produce to the Commons! We currently have vegetables such as beets, spinach, broccoli, carrots and more growing on campus.
We all felt better after grabbing breakfast from a gas station. We might not admit it, but gas station food is pretty good, especially pizza from Casey’s – that was my breakfast. The car was full of the sustainability crew and filled with talk of what we might learn at the course and plans for the sustainability program.
Two hours later we arrived in Ames at Iowa State University. We looked around and saw multiple statues made of plastic; one, I remember, of a polar bear had big pieces of used coolers on it. We entered the building at Reiman Gardens and got ready for our course with some handouts and free doughnuts, which never fail to make people happy.
We had quite a long day ahead of us as the first speaker began at 9 a.m., and we would not be leaving until just after 3 p.m., plus the almost two-hour drive back to Lamoni. Our first speaker was Adam Montri, the keynote speaker, from Michigan State University. “Two Acres and a High Tunnel: How Season Extension has gone from Niche to Necessity and Where it Fits in the Future” was the title for this first session, and, in my opinion, it was a great opener for this short course. Montri took us through not just what he is doing now with his multiple hoop houses, but how he got there. Of course after seeing how amazing his farm and hoop houses are now, showing us how he did it, we basically just decided to become farmers. I’m kidding, maybe.
From 9 to 11:45 a.m. there were three different courses on the schedule. Following the first session was “Cucurbit Crops for High Tunnel Production.” Ajay Nair led this session about cucurbit crops. Incase you are wondering, cucurbit crops are in the gourd family and they include vegetables such as melons, pumpkins, squashes and, you guessed it, cucumbers. Next, Cary Rivard from Kansas State University talked to us about integrating crop diversity into hoop houses.
After this, we broke for lunch, which was catered by a local restaurant. I am not going to focus on lunch, but believe me when I say it was delicious! In fact, the vegetarian yam filling for the tacos was so good that Jen wanted to get the recipe from the chef. Besides lunch, we went on a mini exploration of Reiman Gardens. First we went into a room full of plants and flowers with a giant jellyfish sculpture made form plastic; there was even a miniature waterfall. We then went into their butterfly room, which is exactly what it sounds like. This room was magical! There were tons of butterflies all around us. One even insisted on staying attached to Jaime.
We had just under an hour for this lunch break, and then we returned to finish up the course. We started with “Disease and Insect Management in High Tunnels.” This session was interesting as it discussed different pests, signs of insects and ways to tell what is wrong with your plants. Montri returned for the next session titled “Crop Selection, Pricing and Economics for Successful Year-Round High Tunnel Production.” After this, it concluded with “Valuable Lessons from Production to Marketing of High Tunnel Tomatoes.” This last one included a group activity at our tables where we had different topics and created lists of possible issues for that topic. We then briefly browsed the gift shop, loaded back up into the Graceland van and headed for Lamoni.
This short course was a great learning experience for all of us. I think that those of us who work for the sustainability program at Graceland already had a love and appreciation for hoop houses, like the one on our campus, and after this I think that grew immensely. I might feel inclined to say this is due to the fact that afterward, multiple people expressed that they wanted to own a hoop house in the future. The people who put this course together are hoping to make these courses an annual event, which would be great so that people like us can keep coming back to gather more helpful information to make our hoop house more successful!
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