USDA to fund high tunnels on small farms

This USDA press release provides a real test of our principles. Basically, it announces that the USDA is going to fund construction of high tunnels on small farms in 38 states as a way to benefit small farms & local foods, while testing the viability of such growing methods.

Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan today announced a new pilot project under the ‘Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food’ initiative for farmers to establish high tunnels – also known as hoop houses – to increase the availability of locally grown produce in a conservation-friendly way…

The 3-year, 38-state study will verify if high tunnels are effective in reducing pesticide use, keeping vital nutrients in the soil, extending the growing season, increasing yields, and providing other benefits to growers…

USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will provide financial assistance for the project through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), the EQIP Organic Initiative, and the Agricultural Management Assistance program. NRCS will fund one high tunnel per farm. High tunnels in the study can cover as much as 5 percent of 1 acre

Sounds great, right? Finally some money and support going to really building up small farms. In theory, we could sure use a free high tunnel. Well, here’s what concerns me:

(1) How much money are they actually putting into this? 5% of one acre is around 2200 square feet. A very basic 26’x96′ high tunnel, around 2500 square feet (such as this one from FarmTek), runs close to $4,000. Assuming multiple farms per state, in 38 states, that’s going to add up quickly. A drop in the bucket compared to commodity subsidies, maybe, but still a lot of taxpayer money.

(2) Have they thought through the selection process? Who gets preference, new/young farmers, old/experienced farmers, full-time vs. hobby farmers? If you spend this much money, it had better be on farms that will make full use of them and do it effectively. Will they ensure the farm has enough labor and skill in place to use the structure effectively? Growing in tunnels requires a different skill set than open fields, and will require more labor and costs from the farmer. I hope their selection process is serious; I have a sinking feeling many of these expensive structures will end up with folks who don’t know how to use them or can’t afford to use them to their potential. It’s worth remembering that, just like any business, there are good farmers and bad farmers. Don’t go showering free high tunnels on farms that are struggling because they’re not very good at what they do, and so appear to be in need of help.

(3) What will the effect be on local market competition? If you have an area with multiple good farms, and only some of them get a free government high tunnel, you’re putting a significant competitive disadvantage on the others. Also, this sort of thing naturally discriminates against farms who have developed their infrastructure with their own efforts and resources. If I were a farm like our local Pierpont Farm, which has put a lot of time and resources of their own into paying for tunnels, I’d be a bit miffed to see my competitors getting handouts. It reminds me of all the special credits and favors being given to new and struggling home-buyers, effectively screwing over all the responsible folks who lived within their means and kept their mortgages paid.

(4) Have they established rigorous and effective tracking mechanisms to ensure they collect the data needed to solve the question that’s driving this (are high tunnels effective)? Too often, a program like this shovels the money out the door but never really follows up. What sort of guidelines and data collection are the farms and the USDA expected to conduct over three years to prove or disprove the hypothesis? If these aren’t in place and carried out, it really becomes just a handout rather than a justifiable research project.

Also, if the goal is to learn how effective high tunnels are, why not start with the farms who already have them, and presumably are among the most experienced and successful with them since they achieved the tunnels’ existence and maintenance privately? Why assume that you have to start over with farms who don’t already have these, when you have existing growers already in place with years of experience?

(5) Fundamentally, this raises all the questions I generally have about government grant programs. Free money creates a quicksand effect of unintended consequences, and often ends up creating a lot of hassle and cost for the recipient. And it just doesn’t seem right to give things away; people value most what they’ve earned, not what they’ve been given.

I understand why they’re undertaking this, because expensive infrastructure like high tunnels are often out of reach to farmers who can’t get business loans from banks who don’t understand their business model. We know several prospective farmers in this area who can’t get started because they currently can’t afford to, even though they are skilled enough to do so. However, this kind of project could be funded, say, by low-interest government loans instead, in which the recipient is still on the hook for the cost and has to pay it back by making the project work. This is also a more effective use of government funds, since they eventually get the money back instead of just shovelling it out the door.

(6) Finally, this sort of project is an excellent example of another fundamental problem I have with government: its many hands pay no attention to what each other are doing, and end up creating a great deal of overlapping projects that cancel each other out. The thinking goes, we already spend so much money propping up every other form of agriculture (commodity subsidies, irrigation subsidies for CA and the Southwest, etc.), why not put a little into direct-market farms?

I say, we’d be better off streamlining government policy and spending to eliminate the barriers to small farms and to eliminate the existing spending that creates the problem in the first place. Rather than lather money on small farms too, why not start reforming all the other parts of the system that keep them down? A large part of the reason local farms are not perceived as competitive is precisely because of existing USDA policy subsidizing their large-scale competitors and restricting vegetable production (such as the asinine rule that subsidized commodity farmers will not receive any payments for land used to grow “specialty crops” like fruits and vegetables, even if they’re grown as part of a crop rotation with the commodity).

Yes, I know I’m being a curmudgeon on this. There is a strong argument which says we can’t remodel the entire US ag system overnight, so why not pick away at places we can have an effect? But these things need to be said; we can’t afford to continue with a government model that assumes creating programs and spending money are the only ways to achieve things. In any one case, it can sounds great. Free high tunnels for small farms! But when you look at the overall picture, it’s an absurd continuation of the idea that the only thing able to fix a problem is government money.

I hope it is implemented and works to the best of its potential, as a way to develop vibrant and succesful small local farms and to learn more about the efficacy of their methods. But I’m not able to truly cheer for another continuation of big government influence in agriculture that doesn’t address the root problems at hand.

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