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Jaemore extends growing seasons with tent crops
European 'high tunnel production' method keeps soil warmer
These white half runner beans are being grown using a new method that employs a dome tent on Jaemor Farms in Lula. The tent substantially increases the soil temperature. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

They may not have figured out how to add extra hours to the day, but the folks at Jaemor Farms have found a production method that adds more time to their growing season.

Last month, the family of farmers implemented a "high tunnel production" method.

"This is the first time that we've done it. It's a relatively new practice in the United States, but it's pretty common in Europe where farmland is very limited," said Drew Echols, farm manager.

"In Europe, they've been able to double their crop land with these tunnels. They have been able to have spring and fall crops on the same piece of property.

"They're designed to extend the growing season by about a month."

"High tunnels" are structures that look similar to greenhouses.

"They're real similar, but one of the big differences is we don't heat them like you would do with a green house," Echols said.

"There's a translucent, plastic roof that is designed to let 90 percent of sunlight in. The sunlight is what heats the building. If it's 80 degrees outside, then it would be about 110 degrees inside the tunnel."

On Thursday, when the soil outside the tunnel was about 55 degrees, the soil inside the tunnel was registering at 75 degrees.

The plastic structure has manually moveable walls, which can be opened to help reduce the heat.

"The goal is to keep it around 85 degrees in there," Echols said.

Besides temperature, growing crops inside the tunnels also helps the farmers control other variables that can be detrimental to the plants.

"One big benefit of tunnel production is that rain water is shed off. That's where a lot of disease comes from," Echols said.

"Obviously we have to water the crops in there, but the rain water is shed off. We use a drip irrigation system. And we don't have heavy dews inside the tent. It's really ideal growing conditions."

The first crop that the farmers planted inside the 200-foot-long tunnel was green beans.

"We planted them around March 6 or 7 and now the plants are about 8 inches tall. Green beans are always a huge seller for us, so that's why we decided to start out with that crop," Echols said.

"People come out of the woodwork for them, so we thought if we could get them in earlier, it would be better for our customers.

"Early summer green beans are mostly imported from somewhere else. We'll probably be able to pick them the first of May, whereas it would be mid July or later before people around here would be able to pick them from their gardens."

The 99-year-old family farm's customers can look forward to more batches of early crops in the future.

"We'll probably end up planting our fall crop of tomatoes in there around Thanksgiving or Christmas," Echols said.

"So far, we have been very satisfied. Our long-term goal is to add a tunnel every year until we get up to three or four acres under production.

"I suspect that over the next 10 years, these are going to become a lot more common across the Southeast."