High Tunnels in Philadelphia

Posted: September 2, 2011

I want to write about some present day activities in the City of Philadelphia and some good “old style” extension and applied research that we have been undertaking in the heart of the city under the gaze of William Penn, perched high atop City Hall. As you may or may not know, myself and other colleagues in the department have been working with high tunnels since 1998 when we started the High Tunnel Research and Education Facility located on the Horticulture Farm at Rock Springs, PA.
60 foot long high tunnel located at Nice Roots Farm, SHARE Food Program

60 foot long high tunnel located at Nice Roots Farm, SHARE Food Program

High tunnels are an excellent example of season extension technology. High tunnels are certainly not greenhouses, although greenhouse principles serve as the basis for the function of a high tunnel.  High tunnels normally have only one layer of plastic over a pipe frame, unlike a greenhouse where there are two layers inflated with air over a pipe frame. There is usually not a furnace or permanent type heating system or the associated fans for heating and ventilating. There is no electricity in a high tunnel. Ventilation is accomplished by manually rolling up the sides each morning.  The ventilation of the tunnels is critical to the successful production of crops in a high tunnel.  Some growers have installed a small fan and louvers to provide some ventilation and to keep the temperatures from rising rapidly in the morning until they are able to get over to roll the sides up. Some growers do provide supplemental heat through the use of non-vented propane heaters that should only be used in an emergency situation (such as an extreme drop in temperatures) and only for the short term. Drip irrigation is sometimes used for watering and fertigation (injection of soluble or organic fertilizers to feed the crops). In many cases biological control of insect pest is practiced.

Penn State Department of Horticulture and Philadelphia County Extension Educators partnered with community based organizations and secured funding from two USDA’s Specialty Crops Block Grants to assist with the purchase and/or construction of high tunnels. We also provide hands-on training on construction, production and operation of these high tunnels to produce vegetable crops for an extended season/year around production of greens and other cool season vegetables to help eliminate the food deserts that exist in the city of Philadelphia and to provide more fresh and nutritious specialty crops (vegetables/small fruits) to the underserved populations thus fighting obesity especially childhood obesity and the associated health ramifications.

Urban farming is indeed a rapidly growing and expanding movement in the United States and in particular Philadelphia. Over 86% of the population of the United States resides in or around urban areas. Urban farming could contribute to food security, food safety and workforce development. Increased availability of fresh and nutritious vegetables and fruits, especially to underserved populations lacking retail food outlets, is a high priority of decision makers at the federal, state and local level. It is viewed as a way to combat the alarming rise of obesity in children and adults, and thus reduce related health care costs in the United States.

Thus far we have constructed seven high tunnels: a 30 foot wide by 60 foot long high tunnel located at Nice Roots Farm, SHARE Food Program, on 2901 West Hunting Park Avenue adjacent to the old TASTYKAKE baking company;  a 21 foot wide by 48 foot long high tunnel at Grumblethorpe Museum and Farmstand, located at 5267 Germantown Ave.; a 12 foot wide by 20 foot long high tunnel at Walnut Hill Community Farm, located between 46th and Farragut Streets, and Ludlow and Market Streets; a 21 foot wide by 48 foot long high tunnel located at the Awbury Arboretum, Washington Lane in association with Weaver’s Way Produce;  a 21 foot wide by 48 foot long high tunnel with Urban Girls Produce located at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education located in the northwest corner of Philadelphia, in the neighborhood of Roxborough; a 17 foot wide by 36 foot long high tunnel located at Saul Agricultural High School located off Ridge Ave. and most recently a 30 foot wide by 48 foot long high tunnel with Teens for Good at 8th and Poplar Street at a Philadelphia Parks and Recreation site.

A second award of an USDA Specialty Crops Block Grant will allow us to construct six additional high tunnels at the following sites and with the following partners. At Heritage Farms we will assist the farmers on the further construction and operation of two 21-foot wide by 96-foot long high tunnels that will be used for production of vegetables for the Methodist Home kitchen and for sale to the local communities. Heritage Farm is located off of City Ave. at the old Methodist Center for children. At the Nice Roots Farm SHARE Food Program located off of Hunting Park Avenue we will partner with them on the construction and operation of a second smaller high tunnel 21-foot wide by 60-foot long to be placed alongside their current 30-foot wide by 60-foot long high tunnel for the year around production of vegetables for sale at their food distribution center for the food pantries and soup kitchens of Philadelphia. The SHARE Food Program high tunnels offer a tremendous opportunity for a large number of people to visit their high tunnels when they come to pick up their food and supplies and see how they too could produce fresh produce (specialty crops) back in their own communities. Guild House West, a Friends Rehabilitation Program located at 1221Fairmount Avenue is an independent living facility with 155 units for low-income elders. They are interested partnering on a 21-foot wide by 60-foot long high tunnel to expand the quantity and seasonal availability of produce that can be utilized by the facilities kitchen and also actively involved the senior residents in this project. Carson Valley Children's Aid is a non-profit, child welfare agency with a distinguished history of service to children and families. They offer a comprehensive continuum of care and are committed to strengthening children, families and neighborhoods by delivering programs and services that respond to today's needs as well as creating programs and services to respond to changing needs. They are interested in constructing a 21-foot wide by 96-foot long high tunnel for their North Philadelphia farming project. Due to overwhelming demand for food grown on Urban Tree Connection (UTC) sites thus far, UTC is converting a 2/3 of an acre parcel in Haddington (the Polselli site at 53rd and Wyalusing) into a farm that will be the central production site of a new venture: a mixed income CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program named Neighborhood Foods. At the core of the Neighborhood Foods model is the commitment to building a community-based, local, sustainable food system that empowers residents to leverage the resources that exist within their community to build a stronger economy and improve access to fresh, healthy food. They will be partnering with us on constructing a 21-foot wide by 80-foot long high tunnel. With Teens for Good we will be constructing another 30 foot wide by 48-foot long high tunnel located at the Carousel House in Fairmount Park. The Pepsico Company is supplying the money for the purchase of the high tunnel.

At each of these sites we will help our partners teach and employ young people and members of the community in the production of fresh vegetables, small fruits and flowers using high tunnel technology. We have a tremendous expertise in the development and utilization of high tunnel technology across the state and are a natural partner to assist with the further introduction of high tunnels as part of the larger Urban Farming Initiative in Philadelphia. A wide variety of partners are certainly involved in this project from public and private schools, community organizations, community recreation centers, and food banks and all are committed to the utilization of high tunnels to teach and employ young people and members of the community in the production of fresh vegetables, small fruits and flowers thus helping to fight obesity in adults and children and also fighting childhood diabetes. This project truly showcases “old style” extension and applied research at its finest, directly and positively impacting the lives of people in the City of Philadelphia.