Grant To Shed Light On Greenhouse Food Crops

GIRDLETREE – An experiment in

using high-tunnel greenhouse technology in coastal areas could offer Worcester County farmers another economic option

and add to the local food supply.

“It’s extremely important to
preserve agriculture. The best way to do it is to make sure farmers make
money,” said Worcester County Economic Development Director Jerry Redden.

The Maryland Hawk Corp., out of
the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore (UMES), has received a
$150,000 federal Rural Development grant to build the plastic-covered
greenhouses on a farm in Girdletree on half an acre of ground to test the
feasibility of growing and marketing greenhouse food crops on the Lower Eastern Shore.

“That’s one reason why we got a
grant. We’re still in the demonstration phase,” said Dan Kuennen, of the
Maryland Hawk Corp.

High-tunnel greenhouses, also
known as hoop houses, cost roughly one-sixth of a traditional greenhouse,
according to Kuennen. This technique requires very little land.

“You can do this on as little as
an acre of ground,” said Redden. “That’s encouraging. We want to keep as much
open space as possible.”

UMES has a history of supporting
alternative, greenhouse farming, starting with greenhouse flowers in the 1990s,
and a partnership with Bell Nursery. A partnership with a Chinese flower
company to grow orchids is also underway.

“It’s all driven by the
marketplace,” Kuennen said. “Can you grow it for the marketplace at a price
that brings a profit to the individual farmer?”

Plans call for three high-tunnel
greenhouses on the demonstration site, growing leaf lettuce and strawberries
for most of the year. The crops were chosen after discussions with vegetable
buyers like large supermarkets. Herbs and other leaf crops could be grown in

Leaf vegetables can also be
grown nine to 10 months of the year, if not year-round, with a high-tunnel
green house, with a minimum investment and no added heating, bringing in money
when traditional farming is halted for the winter.

Kuennen is considering whether
to grow those vegetables organically.

“It has to be sellable. It has
to be marketable,” he said.

“There’s a very strong demand
for organic products,” Redden said.

The greenhouses can be erected
quickly and the first lettuce crop could be harvested in a few months.

“We’re hoping late summer, early
fall,” said Kuennen.

High-tunnel greenhouses have
proven viable across the country. Kuennen chose Worcester County
to test the viability of high-tunnel farming in a coastal area.

“This is not an academic
exercise to do this,” he said, describing the experiment with the greenhouses
as the “pre-commercialization phase.”

The project should also serve as
public education, for farmers and non-farmers alike, on best farming practices,
Kuennen said.

Greenhouse farming may have yet
to catch on in Worcester
County because the
integrator infrastructure is not there, Kuennen speculated. Integrators, like
big poultry companies, contract with growers to provide a product, then sell
the product to the marketplace. Many small farmers prefer to sell through an

Farmers must become interested
in and see the profit of high-tunnel greenhouse growing for the effort to go

“We can’t force it. These are
private investments people are making, It has to make economic sense,” Kuennen

“If you show it is profitable, I
think they’ll adopt it very quickly,” Redden said.