Web posted Thursday, August 18, 2011 http://www.alaskajournal.com/stories/081811/bus_snuatg.shtml
State's new USDA agronomist talks growth
By James Brooks
Kodiak Daily Mirror
Guests at the Kodiak Soil and Water Conservation District growers potluck Aug. 3 in Kodiak take their pick of food provided by Kodiak residents, including fresh-grown produce and beef. The event was a chance for local growers to meet Craig Smith, the new USDA agronomist for Alaska. AP Photo/James Brooks/Kodiak Daily Mirror
KODIAK (AP) — If you listen to new Alaska state agronomist Craig Smith for long, you'll probably come away believing hoophouses, formally called high tunnels, are the greatest thing since sliced bread.
In Kodiak, that might not be far from the truth. While they won't do the slicing, hoophouses have tripled crop yields in farms across Kodiak, Smith said.
Smith was the featured speaker at a recent growers potluck, sponsored by the Kodiak Soil and Water Conservation District.
Smith, who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, said a three-year pilot program to expand the use of hoophouses has been wildly successful in Kodiak and Homer, helping the service reach its congressional mandate to reduce the amount of energy needed to transport food to consumers.
"(Hoophouses have) been one of our successful programs," he said at the Aug. 3 event. "It has been small-scale farmers that are trying to decrease transportation costs and transportation difficulty by growing their own fresh vegetables."
Smith said much of his job involves answering questions that staff at the local soil and water office forward to him.
"Here on Kodiak . they call up, visit or email the district staff, and if they can't answer it and feel it deals with agronomy, they pass it on to me," Smith said.
Mark Kinney, district conservationist for Homer and Kodiak, is one of those staffers. He joined Smith in promoting the hoophouse gospel.
"When you buy locally, you're not only supporting the local economy, you assure yourself you're eating well," Kinney said.
Under the subsidy, which was only available to established growers, the NRCS required participants to purchase a hoophouse kit and maintain it for four years, including soil testing, pest control and fertilizer. In return, NRCS paid $4.86 per square foot of hoophouse. To put this figure in perspective, an eligible 480-square-foot model available online costs $1,039, not including shipping.
Kinney said of the 234 hoophouses subsidized in the first two years of the NRCS pilot program, 153 have been built in the Homer-Kodiak area and 31 constructed on Kodiak Island. There were 134 applications from the area for the third year of the project, including 25 from Kodiak. That's more hoophouses built and more applicants than any other NRCS region in the country.
"That really shows the desire here to extend the growing season," he said. "It's a minimum of six weeks added to each side of the growing season . That's three months additional growing time."
With that growing time, "The farmers market is firing up as a result," he said. "We have people growing fruit trees, apples and cherries, here on Kodiak. . We saw people growing and harvesting corn here in Kodiak."
As the three-year pilot project reaches its conclusion, Kinney said time will be needed to analyze the data generated by the project, whose stated goal was to determine whether hoophouses are economically viable in Kodiak.
When asked if that seems to be the case, he had a quick answer: "Absolutely."
With the high cost of transportation to Kodiak, there's a niche for local producers to create locally grown produce and take advantage.
"Kodiak producers are very clever," Kinney said.