COLUMBIA — Dan Kuebler was dressed for the weather on Friday afternoon. He walked through the snow in a green sweater and black rain boots to show off his brand new hoop house.
Stepping inside, the air changed from a sunny 40 degrees to a sultry 85. This is where Kuebler will be planting lettuce, spinach and cabbage by mid-March. His hoop house, a plastic tunnel over a wood-and-metal frame, allows him to get a long jump on the growing season.
Kuebler, 60, has had hoop houses on his hilly Ashland farm since 1991. They let him to plant his vegetables earlier and keep growing them longer than if they were exposed to the elements.
When the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched a program in 2010 to reimburse farmers for part of the cost of a hoop house, Kuebler was one of the first to apply.
“I’ve been doing tunnels for 20 years,” he said. “Now all of a sudden, it’s in vogue.”
Kuebler bought his farm in 1977 but has never been able to use it to its full potential because he works as a physical therapist in addition to farming. This year, he has formed a partnership with Leslie Touzeau, 25, and her partner, Liberty Hunter, 23.
Touzeau and Hunter will be farming the land full time as their only source of income.
“We’re plotting out our future farm,” Kuebler said, “I’m excited for this year.”
Currently, they have about one acre of hilltops cultivated with vegetables, but they’d like to start using more of the farm’s acreage. Touzeau said the partnership was ideal because it gave her and Hunter “a lot of responsibility without a lot of risk. Dan has the land and the structures and the tools.”
Touzeau got her start in farming two years ago. "On a whim I Googled farm apprenticeships," she said. "I've always been really interested in food."
But the current state of the economy means continued federal funding for hoop houses is precarious. According to the Natural Resource Conservation Service website, Missouri contracted for 159 of the structures — officially "high tunnels" — and $713,000 in reimbursement last year.
This year, less money was allocated to the program and there is only enough money for 50 non-organic hoop houses, resource conservationist Paul Duffner said.
This makes the March 4 sign-up deadline all the more important. While there is continuous sign-up in local field offices, farmers must apply by March 4 to be included in the 2011 pool, when funding is certain.
The drop in funding is especially difficult for Missouri because the hoop house program was so popular last year. Missouri had the third highest number under contract in the nation. Only Minnesota and Wisconsin contracted for more.
Since the purpose is to promote new conservation practices, farmers are twice as likely to get accepted if they cultivate organic or transitional produce.
One reason for the incentives is to encourage farmers to try new practices. As Kuebler said, “It takes a while for us to accept looking at something new.”
Data is collected on a farmer's successes and challenges to determine best practices. This is likely to encourage more farmers to put hoop houses on their land.
The Boone County Extension Center held its first information event last Thursday for about 50 producers.
Farmers especially wanted to know about potential markets for any additional produce grown in a hoop house. It is no surprise that most applications for hoop houses come from counties surrounding St. Louis, Kansas City, Springfield and Columbia, Duffner said.
The larger population centers provide markets for growers to sell their produce, particularly if there is a winter farmers market like the one in Columbia. Other possible markets are restaurants and farmer co-ops.
Columbia may provide a larger market for locally grown produce than rural areas, but the vast majority of the produce bought and sold in supermarkets is shipped here.
A survey of the produce for sale Saturday in the Hy-Vee at 405 E. Nifong Blvd. revealed that almost all of it came from Mexico and California. The store did offer fresh herbs from Mariposa Farms in Iowa.
Even at the Columbia Winter Farmers' Market, only two of the 10 vendors open Saturday afternoon were selling fresh produce. Rudy Hostettler from Echo Valley Produce was selling tomatoes, and Rhonda Borgmeyer from Pete’s Produce was selling tomatoes, spinach and onions.
All of the tomatoes were grown in greenhouses, but Borgmeyer is building a hoop house. She said it would be a good project for the fall.
This time next year, more hoop houses should be in full operation, providing the farmers market with more fresh produce vendors. The hope is that as the size of the market grows, so too will the number of customers.
As reported previously, the summer Columbia Farmers' Market has an average of 5,000 customers, while the winter market attracts about 250. A potential customer base is there — if the produce is there.
There is also the potential to sell to grocery stores. Borgmeyer said she is one of three local producers selling tomatoes to Hy-Vee in the summer.
With hoop houses, the initial cost of growing fresh produce through the winter is more affordable than in a traditional greenhouse. While many grocery shoppers still look for the cheaper prices that bigger suppliers can offer, a growing number prefer local, even at a higher price. The price of vine-ripened tomatoes from Mexico was $2.48 per pound at Hy-Vee on Saturday, while tomatoes at the farmers market were selling for $3.75 a pound.
It is a question of availability, convenience and quality. With more first-time customers such as Carolyn Sullivan coming to the winter market, there is a lot of room for growth.
On Saturday, Sullivan was looking for locally grown fresh vegetables. She normally shops at the grocery store but buys local produce whenever it is offered there.
That is what forward-thinking farmers like Dan Kuebler, Leslie Tozeau and Liberty Hunter are counting on.