Assessing the conservation value and food system impacts of high tunnels
There is growing demand for food grown and sold locally, but climate often limits supply. High tunnels can often overcome these limitations. In order to encourage local availability and production of specialty crops the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) has launched the Seasonal High Tunnel initiative. This cost-share program provides farmers with a high tunnel intended to encourage the availability of locally grown fresh produce. Using mixed-methods research this thesis examines the social, economic, and conservation impacts of the NRCS high tunnel program. We have run a county by county negative binomial regression of the NRCS high tunnel distribution biophysical, socio-demographic, and market driven factors. Additionally, 7 vegetable farms throughout Virginia were visited during the 2014 growing season to compare high tunnel and field grown cucumbers (Cucumis sativus) and tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum). Additional detail about high tunnel production and food distribution was obtained with a survey of Virginia high tunnel growers. Survey respondents indicate that the majority of their high tunnel produce is sold within 100 miles of their farm. Regression results indicate that the NRCS high tunnel program is benefiting areas where the availability of local food is high, but may be neglecting areas with historically underserved communities. Our field results show that yield and the yield per pesticide application dividend were higher in high tunnel production of both cucumber and tomato. Therefore, we conclude that, high tunnels meet conservation goals different than the ones outlined by the NRCS. The NRCS high tunnel program is promoting the expansion of local food availability. However, work remains to clarify conservational benefits and to ensure that all communities have equal access to the fresh produce they provide.