Genuine Faux Farm wants to be sustainable and resilient. Help add a new high tunnel building.

Dreamer: Rob Faux Winner

Business: Genuine Faux Farm

Location: Tripoli, IA

Industry Contest: Cedar Valley 2013

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The Genuine Faux Farm is a small, family farm that focuses on raising vegetables for our 120 member farm share CSA. We are certified organic and believe in using sustainable methods. We specialize in heirloom and open-pollinated vegetables, selecting vegetable varieties for taste first and production second. We also raise turkeys, chickens and ducks.

GFF will be entering its tenth year of operation on a fourteen acre farm northwest of Tripoli. We have worked to adjust our operation to become reliable producers of vegetables for our farm share holders. Weather conditions continue to provide challenges that often reduce crop production. However, we have found that the investment in a high tunnel building in 2010 provides an additional tool to deal with extreme weather conditions.

The problem:

Our fields are particularly susceptible to problems with excessive rainfall. Our production in 2010 was adversely affected by extremely wet conditions that persisted into early July. As a result, nearly 70% of our crops were lost due to standing water in the fields. For example, a field with 700 sweet pepper plants managed to only produce 7 fruit for the entire season.

This past season (2013) started with some similarities to the 2010 season. This growing season differed by starting the wet trend earlier in the season and ending slightly earlier (late-mid June). We made a number of adjustments on the farm to handle the situation, but we can point to the addition of a movable high tunnel building as one of the biggest reasons why we did not have a repeat of 2010 for overall farm production.

However, this season illustrated a need for a second high tunnel building on the farm. With a single building, we are unable to extend a crop on both ends of production. For example, we wanted to start tomatoes, beans and peppers early. However, with weather conditions preventing planting of kale, chard and other crops, we were forced to extend the season of our Spring planting in the high tunnel. As a result, we were unable to take full advantage of the covered environment during the wet Spring.

What is a high tunnel?

A high tunnel is, in essence, an unheated greenhouse. It is a hoop building that is covered by clear plastic. In our case, we selected a building that is 30' x 72' and resides on a track. This track allows us to move the high tunnel to one of two positions. We move the building once a year in the Fall in order to allow the soil to rest and recuperate for a year in the previously used position.

The high tunnel building allows us to plant three crop sets per year (an early Spring planting, a Summer planting and a Fall planting). We have harvested spinach in the Spring as early as February 28 and have brought in lettuce from the high tunnel as late as December 20. The high tunnel is essentially an artificial desert environment, with moisture being controlled by our own irrigation system. During very wet periods, such as those we have experienced in 2010 and 2013, it provides us with a location where we can continue to work to grow produce.

Steps already taken on the farm:

In addition to the high tunnel building added in 2010, we have taken numerous steps to become a more resilient operation. We believe in providing our own crop insurance by maintaining a diversified operation with many different crops. We also work to split crops so that most are not located in one field, thus avoiding full loss if one area should have a problem. We have added new equipment to allow us to work more quickly during limited planting/cultivating windows in wet periods. We have also added some raised beds on the farm to give us another method to deal with excessive rainfall.

How would a second high tunnel help Genuine Faux Farm?

The 2013 Spring crop from our single high tunnel provided us with $2650 worth of produce alone. During this period we were able to harvest nearly 200 heads of lettuce, 260 bunches of kale, 140 bunches of swiss chard, 130 kohlrabi, 70 pok choi and 40 pounds of spinach. It is not unreasonable for us to expect $7500 worth of produce from this building over the course of one season.

The shortcoming we must deal with is the difficulty of transitioning from one crop to another crop in a timely fashion. A single building makes this very difficult. A second building would allow us to identify early removal Spring crops for one building and late removal Spring crops for another building. We can also schedule one building to move in the Spring and the other to move in the Fall. This should remove the need to terminate a crop that is producing in order to put the next crop in. Or, as happened this season, it should not force us in a difficult year to delay the next crop so that we can extend the prior crop in order to handle shortages due to field problems.

This solution is particularly important for seasons such as this one. In a year where excess rain limits field planting options, the high tunnel produce value is absorbed by our commitments to provide produce to the CSA. In effect, we are cashing in the insurance policy we have created for ourselves. While it has worked reasonably well for us, we would like to increase this part of our production plan so that we can reduce stress on the farmers during difficult growing seasons and increase yield reliability for more of our crops.

What will this project cost us and how do we intend to fund it?

Our first high tunnel, from Four Seasons Tools, came at a price tag around $16,000. We were recipients of EQIP funding (approx. $2100) and used most of our available capital from farm share sales to put the building up in 2010. We anticipate a similar building will come in between $15,000 and $18,000. A typical yearly budget for the farm allows for approximately $10,000 -$15,000 in capital improvements. However, it would be best for the farm if we could avoid using our entire budget in this area for a single project. Past experience has shown us that each year will uncover a new project that must be done during the growing season that was not necessarily at the top of our list of projects for the year. Therefore, we are hopeful that we can acquire some grant funding to aid in purchasing and putting up this building.

Return on Investment

We anticipate the return on investment for this project to be approximately two and a half years. The difficulty with this is that difficult growing seasons absorb that income by replacing field crops. As a result, the return is not necessarily seen as new cash flow, but is seen by the retention of customers. During reasonable field growing seasons, the high tunnel production can be seen as additional income for the farm.

Why a Dream Big, Grow Here grant?

The focus of this grant is on the development of local businesses. As a local business that focuses solely on the local sale of produce and poultry in the Cedar Valley, it appeals to us to be involved in this program versus using a more generic or wide-ranging fund sourcing method. Further, we look forward to the opportunity to share our future plans to help our farm be successful for another ten years.
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