Grow Sustainab-LEE had our last meeting for this cohort on Monday, October 16, 2023, at Joe and Nina Jenks’ farm in Lee County, Virginia. This meeting centered around learning about season extension techniques and cover crops. The Jenks’s farm was able to install a high tunnel earlier in the year and our program took a field trip to visit. A high tunnel is used to protect plants from severe weather and allow growers to extend their growing seasons. Typically, they are made of plastic or fabric that cover hoop-like structures. High tunnels have the benefit of being relatively inexpensive and easy to build.
High Tunnel Season Extension
With high tunnel systems, the growing season is extended by protecting the plants from severe weather. They also improve plant quality and soil quality, reduce nutrient and pesticide transportation, improve air quality through reduced transportation inputs, and reduce energy use by providing consumers with a local source of fresh produce. (https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/programs-initiatives/eqip-high-tunnel-initiative) All of these benefits are useful, but perhaps none more so that providing consumers with fresh produce that didn’t have to be shipped across the country or even the globe. This is also one of the main tenants of Grow Appalachia Garden grants, which is making sure our communities have access to healthy, organic, locally grown produce. The Jenks’ are working hard to deliver on this promise as they sell at the local farmers market and often donate produce to community members even without charge.
The second topic of discussion at the meeting was cover crops. In agriculture, cover crops are plants that are used to cover the soil rather than for harvest. Cover crops have many benefits, some of which are:
- Decomposing cover crops help feed soil life and contribute to stable soil organic matter, which improves nutrient cycling and soil structure.
- Cover crop organic matter can help join soil particles into stable aggregates. These aggregates and cover crop root channels help soils better absorb intense rain, resist erosion, and improve water holding capacity in drier conditions.
- Plant cover helps intercept and lessen the force of raindrops. This reduces soil erosion, compaction, and nutrient runoff from intense rainstorms.
- Cover crops reduce water pollution risks and remove CO2 from the atmosphere. They help the environment and reduce a farm’s carbon footprint.
- Cover crops provide economic benefits. They can increase crop yields, reduce machinery costs, out-compete weeds, break disease and insect cycles, host beneficial organisms, attract pollinators, scavenge nutrients, and supply forage.
- Cover crops take up excess water, which can help dry out wet fields before planting.
While the season has come to an end for our growers who are not using season extension techniques, we feel we have had a successful year in that many of our growers have come away from our classes with new tools and techniques for growing organically. Hopefully, they have learned about some season extension techniques to extend their growing season and they will consider planting cover crops when their gardens are not in use. Until next time, happy gardening!