Building a High Tunnel, Building a Community

Volunteers work together to build a high tunnel during an educational farmer-brigade event at Fairpoint Farms in Kittrell, NC on February 27, 2023. (Joe Pellegrino/RAFI)

In 2019, Elvin Eaton of Fairpoint Farms in Kittrell, NC became excited to expand his operation by building a high tunnel that would extend his growing season. He had just heard that the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) was offering cost share for farmers interested in building high tunnels and applied right away. Unfortunately, Elvin’s application met with a slew of problems and setbacks. He was expecting his application to go through before 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing, placing farmers and USDA staff in unprecedented circumstances.

His land was ultimately not certified for the build until 2022, three years after his application was submitted. Elvin felt as though he couldn’t wait any longer at this point, and resolved to purchase his high tunnel in full. This began a long path of research for Elvin that culminated in him meeting two influential individuals in his future project. The first is Jaimie McGirt, RAFI Agricultural Conservation and Market Access Manager. Elvin was familiar with Jaimie through her work with other community projects such as faith-based CSAs and local food hubs. He met Jaimie at an agricultural conference, where she offered to help him negotiate with NRCS. Together they updated his FSA record, met with an NRCS technician on his farm for high tunnel and irrigation planning, and waited for further communication from NRCS while his application was processed. But Elvin had seen that other farmers shared his experience with the NRCS, and was resolved to move on with his funding, so Jaimie introduced him to another farmer that would leave a tremendous impact on Elvin.

Howard Allen of Faithful Farms in Chapel Hill, NC had been producing videos online demonstrating how to build high tunnels that Elvin had encountered during his independent research. After being introduced by Jaimie McGirt, Elvin invited Howard to his Kittrell home for dinner with his family. The meeting was intended to be two hours but ended up lasting a full eight.

“The day we met, we started finishing each other’s sentences. I was like, where has this guy been all my life?” Elvin recalls with a laugh.

(from left) Howard Allen and Elvin Eaton discuss the construction of a high tunnel on Eaton’s Farm in Kittrell, NC on February 27, 2023. (Joe Pellegrino/RAFI)

Howard drew from his experience on similar projects to help Elvin lay out a roadmap, complete with shortcuts on how to best approach his build efficiently and cost-effectively. The two found quickly that they shared a passion for community and sharing the wisdom of their experiences with other farmers, especially farmers of color in the up-and-coming, younger generation. Elvin decided that he wanted to turn his caterpillar tunnel build into an educational event and he wanted Howard at the helm to shepherd attendees through the process. Elvin immediately began organizing a “tunnel raising” and Jaimie gained support for the event from RAFI’s Farmers of Color Network, which organizes farmer brigades to assist farmers with big projects needing extra hands.

On February 27, 2023, an unusually warm and sunny day, 31 volunteers arrived at Fairpoint Farms to help with the build and learn new skills. Of them, five came by way of Eastern North Carolina Farmers Collaborative, which was contacted by RAFI and several came from the Franklin County Extension Beginning Farmer Bootcamp. RAFI’s Jaimie McGirt and farmer outreach coordinator Carolina Alzate Gouzy.

For nearly ten hours the team assembled and built the kit-manufactured caterpillar tunnel under Howard Allen’s tutelage. Attendees also enjoyed a series of educational talks with lunch, discussing cost and style considerations for various structures and different forms of financing assistance for farmers of color and beginning farmers. 

A lot of farmers and agricultural advocates promote NRCS or the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) as an outlet for financial assistance with high tunnels. Jaimie explains that indeed, the NRCS’s High Tunnel Initiative is a popular type of assistance for producers. However, the popularity and efficacy of the structure have made NRCS’ initiative very competitive with farmers sometimes waiting three years before being approved for a high tunnel. Additionally, NRCS cost-share assistance is only available for farmers who purchase a high tunnel kit designed to NRCS specifications and built to the manufacturer’s standards. 

Some farmers in North Carolina report that they received cost-share assistance for the Farmers Friend-manufactured caterpillar tunnel and Farmers Friend claims it is an NRCS-approved model as well. However, Jaimie warns farmers to always discuss models with their NRCS agent, since not all agents approve every pre-manufactured caterpillar and high tunnel kits for cost-share assistance. If farmers forgo this communication with their agent and purchase a kit their local agent wouldn’t approve of, they risk being denied their NRCS reimbursement. As Howard explained, both types of structures — high tunnel and caterpillar — achieve similar results with the self-financed caterpillar tunnel being potentially more cost-effective, even when compared to a high tunnel with cost-share assistance. William Landis, a Franklin County NC Cooperative Extension Agent who participated in the day’s activities gives a nod to the caterpillar structure and says, “This is the structure that beginning farmers need.” Jaimie was pleased that the event raised the visibility of this structure as a cost-effective alternative for season extension and soil conservation among the agricultural service community.  The caterpillar tunnel is gaining popularity among small and diversified farmers, and as farmers weigh the pros and cons of different tunnel structures, Jaimie wants them to have both the information and opportunities to buy what they need and succeed.  She hopes NRCS will eventually approve the caterpillar tunnel structure universally in North Carolina and other states/territories where it is effective.

A photo gallery chronicling the event can be seen below:

Seeing the community come together and build this tunnel on his property was deeply emotional for Elvin. “More people came than expected. It was more than gratifying. I can’t even express my appreciation,” Elvin shares with us. Building and sharing as a community is paramount to Elvin, especially among farmers of color. Elvin, however, prefers the phrase market gardener.

“When you say farm, to some the first picture that comes to mind is a mule and slavery. My ancestors couldn’t market what they produced. My grandmother would have an auctioneer sell her tobacco at the market and ask us to stand away from the pile so it wouldn’t sell for less.”

He recognizes that the power dynamic changes in community solidarity. “If all the people at our event decided to grow corn, just corn … we would sink the market. We have that much power and we don’t realize it. Together, we could do a lot of things,” he muses. Elvin’s Kittrell base of production is situated in a food desert, with the closest grocery store that sells produce being 15 miles away. Elvin believes that empowering younger growers is the path toward building a brighter future for his community, which is why Elvin does not intend to stop here and plans to hold similar events soon.

By September, Elvin hopes to have two more high tunnels built. Churches near his operation have volunteered to assist in planting 14,000 plant starts in the new infrastructure. Ultimately, he wants to turn his land into what he refers to as a “market garden institute.”

He explains, “I would love to have enough high tunnels out there to teach, especially young people, that this is something you can do to feed your family and community. If this is a hobby for you, this could at least give you supplemental income. We want to teach everything from making a business plan to what to use and how to use it … just be a library. A lot of farmers keep things to themselves. There are a lot of tricks to the trade that I want to share.”

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