Fifty-four degrees Fahrenheit is about as cold as it gets in Burma, and Sudan does not drop below 60 degrees, even on its coldest nights. In fact, all of the refugee farmers growing vegetables at KCCUA's Juniper Gardens Training Farm and Community Gardens come from countries that have tropical climates. So you could imagine that Kansas winters are a bitter pill for them to swallow each year.
Yet on a blustery, rainy, 40 degree day in mid November we had several women turn out on the farm to assist in building our new high tunnel. The design is a simple 20' by 96' model that will provide the Juniper Gardens farm with almost 2000sf of warmer growing space in which the refugees and affiliate farmers can observe and practice cool season and winter production. The lion share of the cost for this new tunnel is covered under a grant through the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) High Tunnel Pilot Program. Our thanks to the local NRCS staff for awarding us the grant and for helping applicants with the application process and paperwork.
Tunnel construction began on Nov. 10 when Daniel Dermitzel, Sam Davis, Larry Davis, and I started setting the posts. The Juniper Gardens Training farm is named for the Juniper Gardens public housing development on which it is located. In fact, sitting on the land where the high tunnel was being installed was an apartment building as recently as 2004. This site history is of particular import when you are trying to drill 34 three-foot deep holes into the ground. Fortunately the most stubborn obstacles found were a section of sidewalk and a few pieces of rebar.
Once the holes were dug and the posts were set, the next piece of the process was to assemble and erect the arches for the high tunnel. This happened on Nov. 17, which was the first day that the training farmers came to assist in the process. It began simply cold and gray but by noon the rain had started and no one really wanted to be outside assembling a cold steel structure. Yet when the refugee farmers came in the afternoon (they all attend English classes in the mornings) the entire mood of the day really changed. They attacked the process with typical gusto and we made significant progress until increasing rain made it unsafe to work with electrical tools and we had to end the workday.
The next few days were spent mostly completing the frame and preparing to attach the plastic sheeting. Then we had another workday on Nov. 23 to finish the tunnel. Pulling a 100 ft long sheet of plastic over an 11 ft tall high tunnel is a rather interesting process, luckily we were blessed with a calm day, or Daniel might have flown to KCMO by accident. Tugging and stretching the plastic to create a taut surface took a bit of effort but many hands were there to help. For me the most striking part of the day was feeling the high tunnel start to heat up as we slowly enclosed it. As each new wall was added the internal temperature increased noticeably. By the end of the day the entire internal surface of the tunnel was steamed up due to the temperature difference. As we stood inside enjoying the fruits of our labor, some of the refugee farmers took the opportunity to practice their English penmanship by writing out “Green House for Refugees” in the water droplets on the inside of the plastic sheeting.
So, our newly minted high tunnel is currently sealed up tight waiting for our early spring production classes to start. Planting will probably begin in mid February for some of the hardier crops. The farmers are really looking forward to having a place to plant crops that more closely simulates the growing climate in their home countries.
by John VanderHeide
To see pictures follow this link the Kansas City Center For Urban Agriculture website.