High Tunnel Gives Life to Mine Site

11/18/2013 7:20 AM
By Missy Russell Martz Maryland Correspondent

FROSTBURG, Md. — A mine reclamation site with neither water nor electricity, and which once had a former life as a Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, trailer parking lot, seemed an unlikely locale for a high tunnel construction workshop. But that is where growers from across Maryland gathered Oct. 26 to erect a 30-by 96-foot, four-season, gothic-style tunnel at the Frostburg Grows project site.

The day before the construction workshop, green thumbs and master gardeners met at Frostburg State University’s Compton Science Center for a three-hour classroom workshop presented by Dan Fiscus, assistant professor of biology at Frostburg State University, and Willie Lantz, agriculture and natural resources agent with University of Maryland Extension, to learn how to construct high tunnels.

Frostburg Grows, a five-acre high tunnel and shade house complex situated on a reclaimed mine south of Frostburg along Route 36, is a grant-funded project that serves to reduce acid mine drainage into the Potomac River, while at the same time providing food production and training by growing native trees — from locally collected nuts to re-establishing native forests on strip-mined lands — and composting for soil generation.

Lantz explained the features of three different styles of high tunnels: traditional, caterpillar and hargrove. The gothic-style shape is best suited for area with high snow load.

He also stressed the importance of setting goals. “What market are you trying to fill? What product do you want to grow? When do you need the product growing? How much economic gain — yield, quality or timing — will you gain from a high tunnel?” he asked when thinking about high tunnel selection.

“Some crops like cabbage don’t make a whole lot of sense in a high tunnel when comparing use of square feet and the ability to extend the growing season. However, you can reduce your loss in strawberries by 50 percent inside high tunnels,” he said.

There are several factors to consider when deciding on what site to place a high tunnel.

“Using existing natural soils, terrain with less than a 3 percent slope, locating the tunnel with the long side perpendicular to prevailing winds, and access to roads, water and electricity are the four main factors to site selection,” he said.

Contrary to Lantz’s four main factors of site selection, the Frostburg Grows site lacks two of them, since there is no existing natural soil or water.

The Frostburg Grows project faces many challenges according to Fiscus. Some of these are “the lack of water and electricity for sure, but also the mice stealing the nuts gathered from the tree nursery is another.”

To counteract the lack of a well, spring or city water, rainwater is collected at the site via gutters on each length of the tunnel, which in turn drains into two mulch-dye tanks and an 8,000-gallon water tank constructed from repurposed old highway signs, insulation board and a pond liner that’s buried in the ground. Two BP Energy-donated solar panels sit atop a cargo storage container, producing electricity that powers a water pump that powers a drip irrigation system. There is also a generator on-site.

Fiscus credits Paul Kazyak, the Highlands Action program liaison for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and his connections with BP Energy for acquiring the 13,000 watts of solar panels taken from an old BP Energy facility near Frederick, Md., as well as for encouraging the re-use of Maryland State Highway road signs, which can’t be placed in a landfill due to their reflective coating.

Lantz said, “A 30-by-96 high tunnel will gather 1,000 gallons of water for every inch of rain.”

Water was hauled in this past summer to supplement the tanks’ supply. The hope is to avoid that same problem next year.

Four pool-heating panels hang off the side of the storage container to warm the water that flows through PEX — cross-linked polyethylene — water lines in the high tunnel. The PEX line helps warm the tunnel during the winter months. This winter, Frostburg Grows plans to run PEX line through raised beds — again constructed of old road signs — covered with row covers to determine just how far the growing season can be extended.

“Every day there is a challenge and it takes creativity and a design-build mentality; it’s very experimental,” Fiscus said.

“Currently, the high tunnels are growing red raspberries, tomatoes, peppers and lettuces, while the shade house contains tree seedlings” said Nathan Bennett, Frostburg Grows site supervisor. In an effort to be sustainable, the fruits and vegetables are sold to Garrett Growers and at farmers markets in Morgantown, W.Va.

“Part of the estimated economics is that these things can gross anywhere from $8,000 to $20,000 per year, per high tunnel,” Fiscus said. “We are hoping this can be a viable niche.”

“We have been collecting nuts from local species of trees because genetics wise, they are suited to this area and can handle the frost conditions,” said Louis Potter, a full-time Americorps member. “It’s our altruistic part of the project.”

The hope is to sell native trees to mine reclamation projects in the future as an income source.

“A lot of students come out and help from services organizations or clubs or classes, and seeing them get interested is good. The other day, students planted 1,400 acorns in five minutes. I can see how this is going to lead to a positive future for economics and the environment,” Fiscus said.

On Saturday, workshop participants learned how to drive sidewall posts, assemble and erect bows, and install hip boards while Corey Beachy and crew of Country Seed & Supply of Meyersdale, Pa., installed purlins across the trussing.

Lantz gave some advice to participants.

“When purchasing a high-tunneling, make sure you are comparing apples to apples. For instance, does the cost include cross bracing? Also, if you care looking for NCRS funding, know what their specs are,” he said.

“We hope to erect a tunnel on our farm in Loch Lynn in the spring,” said workshop participants Mary and Martin Reisinger.

Recent retiree Jinx Walker of Keyser, W.Va., said, “I hope to expand my farm operation and market sales through high tunnels.”

Frostburg Grows funding partners include a $300,000 award from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Highland Action Program through American Rivers; $22,000 from Appalachian Regional Commission and the George’s Creek Watershed Association; Frostburg State University; BP Energy; Western Maryland Resource Conservation and Development Council; Appalachian Center for Ethnobotanical Studies; University of Maryland Extension; A STAR! in Western Maryland Americorps Program; and Maryland State Highway Administration.

To find out more about Frostburg Grows, contact Nathan Bennett, site manager, at frostburggrows@frostburg.edu.

To learn more about high tunnel construction or vegetable and fruit production, contact Willie Lantz, University of Maryland Extension, at wlantz@umd.edu.

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