Art of Agriculture: Combining the Hoop House and Modern Farming

Courtesy Ursula K. Schuch/ The assembled hoop house frame is seen here ready to be covered on the Navajo Nation.

Beginning farming program uses hoop house and modern techniques to teach farming

Using a hoop house, and more modern methods, an Arizona program is bringing back agriculture by teaching the next generation how to farm.

“Years ago, the Navajo were good farmers. And while many still are self-sufficient, we kind of lost touch with the culture of agriculture because of modern conveniences. We thought it would be a good idea to re-introduce the concept of farming to young people using today’s technology,” said Grey Farrell, Extension Program Coordinator for the Navajo Nation.

The result is the Beginning Farmer program at Tonalea Day School near the community of Tuba City, Arizona. The program includes a series of classes for elementary school students (grades K-8) or anyone wanting to grow beyond their home garden and wanting to sell specialty crops and produce.

Courtesy Ella Farrell/ A beginning farmer in the hoop house discovers it takes hard work to produce a crop.

“This is students getting back in touch with growing their own. They really don’t know just how much work goes into growing produce. This course teaches them that it’s possible to grow your own veggies if you invest the needed time and effort,” said Farrell, Navajo.

Classes teach not only the science behind growing, soil, and irrigation—specifics like drip irrigation and soil amendments—but the business side of agriculture including budgeting, economics, and marketing.

“We learned a lot in the class,” said Ella Farrell, Grey’s sister, a teacher and garden project leader at Tonalea. “When you go to a supermarket and see produce, you don’t see how much work goes into growing it. As a child, I remember our cornfields with the whole family involved. Children would go out at sunrise to work the fields, quit during the heat of the day, and head back out in the evening when it got cooler.”

Courtesy Ella Farrell/ Ground ready? Check. Drip irrigation working? Check. Time to plant seeds. Students of the Beginning Farmer program at Tonalea Day School get ready to plant inside the hoop house.

In addition to introducing new growers to agriculture and its economics, the program is also beneficial from a health standpoint. “A lot of our people have health issues connected with eating a lot of processed food,” Grey Farrell said. “I’m hoping the Beginning Farmers program will help us get back to eating more natural, traditional foods.”

Anticipating another successful growing season once the snow is gone and the warmth returns, “We want to build on our 2015-2016 efforts where we constructed our hoop house, applied compost, and installed a drip irrigation system,” he said.

The first planting in the 40-foot-long hoop house by kindergarten, first and second grade students included beans, bell peppers, and tomatoes, but “wasn’t so successful,” according to Ella Farrell. “We really didn’t know what we were doing, so where nothing grew initially, we re-planted chilies and lettuce, and the lettuce (Romaine and gourmet) took off and we harvested it weekly. The older kids, seventh and eighth graders, planted an outside garden next to the hoop house where we tried corn, squash, zucchini, and watermelon. The corn ears were small and the melons were tiny, but the zucchini proliferated. Students who worked the garden got to take the produce home. It was a learning process for everybody and we’re hoping our harvest this year will be even more successful.”

Courtesy Ursula K. Schuch/ Students check out the warmer temperature inside the just covered hoop house.

The project’s three-year, $750,000 funding came from a U.S. Department of Agriculture Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program as part of educational efforts traced back to the Morrill Land Grant Acts in the late 1800s. The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act appropriated $75 million to develop and offer training programs to enhance the sustainability of the next generation of farmers. Those funds were increased by another $20 million by the Agriculture Act of 2014.

“Our project, aimed at increasing skills of Native American beginning farmers in the Southwest, covered programs in 11 different locations in Arizona and New Mexico and included 70 workshops as well as hands-on instruction to nearly 500 individuals,” said project coordinator Trent Teegerstrom.

According to the USDA: “Renewed interest in beginning farmer/rancher programs is needed because of the rising age of farmers; an 8 percent projected decrease in their numbers between 2008-2018, and the growing recognition that new programs are needed to address the needs of the next generation of farmers/ranchers. Recent census data indicates the number of young people entering farming continues to decline. A new generation of beginning farmers/ranchers is important to the continuation of agricultural production in the United States.”

Grey and Ella Farrell spent their recent spring break hauling fertilizer from their sheep corral to the hoop house and outside garden and are optimistic about planting their 2017 crops.