BONNOTS MILL — Rhonda Borgmeyer’s dream of a solar-heated hoop house took more than two years to realize. Her farm is small. But she grows full time.
Borgmeyer, owner of Pete's Produce, was approved in 2009 to receive a $4,800 reimbursement from the government for her hoop house — a plastic-wrapped, hoop-framed alternative to a traditional greenhouse that would add three months of cold-weather growing time on her produce farm.
She was counting on that extra growing time to put more of her homegrown veggies in the hands of customers at the Columbia Farmers' Market, which is now her sole retail venue.
It took about two years, however, for Borgmeyer to come up with enough money for construction costs.
“You have to come up with that money up front,” Borgmeyer said. “And then, if you can’t put it up, you have to figure out where you are going to get the money, and how you are going to pay it back.”
Since 2009, the Natural Resource Conservation Service has provided reimbursements for hoop houses once the structure is installed through the Service's High Tunnel Initiative Program.
Other growers were caught in the same bind: They qualified for the reimbursement but couldn't afford the initial costs.
The Missouri Department of Agriculture is providing short-term loans to cover upfront costs to build hoop houses so farmers like Borgmeyer can get one constructed without any hiccups.
Through the Missouri Agriculture and Small Business Development Authority, a subset of the Missouri Agriculture Department, growers can now apply for a fixed 7.5 percent, one-year loan to cover the initial costs of buying and installing these greenhouse-like structures.
The typical hoop house costs between $4,000 and $6,000, according to the Missouri Agriculture Department. Borgmeyer said an upfront loan would have put her hoop house on the ground two years ago, instead of last fall.
“The sweet deal with the loan program is that (farmers) can apply right away after they have a reimbursement contract and secure those funds in advance,” Mark Kulig, program director for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, said.
To take advantage of the new loan, farmers need to be approved for reimbursement through the conservation service's Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative program.
Borgmeyer trucks even more mid-Missouri-grown produce to market — even through the winter. Her old greenhouses had provided some crops for the last four years but not as much as she has with her new 30-by-95-foot hoop house.
At the winter Columbia Farmers' Market on Saturdays, Borgmeyer sells lettuce, spinach, radishes and pok choi grown in her hoop house. She planted broccoli and cauliflower in mid-January — about three months ahead of schedule. Borgmeyer also grows oyster mushrooms, which are just about ready for sale.
All of that extra growing time and produce made for a profitable winter, Borgmeyer said.
Outside of cool-season crops, like those Borgmeyer sells at the winter market, warm season crops such as bell peppers, cucumbers and zucchini can typically handle the winter without a problem in a hoop house, James Quinn, horticulture specialist for MU Extension, said.
In cold weather, a floating row cover — an additional plant covering used inside the hoop houses — provides warm weather crops with the needed shelter from the cold, Quinn said.
But other warm-season crops like tomatoes need increased attention for cool-season growth. The plant itself doesn’t have problems,but the plant’s fruit does, Quinn said.
When temperatures drop below 50 degrees for an extended period, tomato fruits are ruined, Quinn said.
“It’s difficult to grow a fall tomato crop in a high tunnel without the protection of supplemental heat,” Quinn said.
Fall tomato plants will be large by the time threatening temperatures arrive, and the size of the plants makes using techniques such as floating crop covers more difficult to place and remove constantly, he said.
Correctly using techniques like row covers on other crops can eliminate the need for supplemental heat that wasn't initially allowed under the High Tunnel initiative, Quinn said.
Kenny Duzan, a local grower and co-owner of Broadway Brewery, built his 14-by-48-foot greenhouse for about $650. A mid-summer hailstorm destroyed it in July.
And despite the loan program for hoop houses, Duzan said he wouldn’t want one through the program because of the previous restrictions that didn't allow for the use of heat and electricity.
The hoop house reimbursement program waived restrictions on external heating sources last year, with a retroactive clause giving hoop houses built in previous years the go-ahead for external heat sources like a wood-burning stove, Quinn said.
But the extra cost of installing heat and electricity is not covered in the reimbursements, according to the Natural Resource Conservation Service.
In all, the high-tunnel program was financed through $26.9 million provided to Missouri in 2010. The program added about $2.5 million to that amount in 2011, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
From that money, the high tunnel initiative provided 152 Missouri hoop house reimbursements in 2010. The number of structures approved for reimbursement dropped to 122 in 2011. Since 2010, nine Boone County hoop house reimbursements were approved, Quinn said.
So far, about 30 Missouri hoop house loan applications have been submitted since the Agriculture Department announced the program Jan. 30, Kulig said. Applying for a loan can be done throughout the year.
Kulig had yet to assess the county breakdown of farmers currently seeking one of the loans. He said a decision on the first round of applications will be made by mid-March.