Enough ice-free land to start a real estate boom

High Tunnel Garden Boom In Alaska


image5High-tunnel gardening is booming on the Kenai Peninsula. Here’s why.

Alaska Stems garden has less than half-acre under high tunnels in Homer, Sunday, July 17, 2016. Owner Rachel Lord and her family built their high tunnels through the NRCS program. (Sarah Bell / Alaska Dispatch News)

HOMER — Farming in Alaska can be a tricky prospect, with fickle weather and short growing seasons. But farmers across the state are working around that with simple steel frames and yards of Visqueen.

Meet the high tunnel, a 15- to 20-foot-tall structure that’s looks like half-Quonset hut, half-greenhouse. Alaska farmers are embracing the high tunnel, sometimes called a “hoop house,” not only as a way to extend their growing seasons — and therefore profits — but also to expand the agricultural variety of what they grow.

High tunnels in Alaska are yielding melons and elephant garlic. Peaches and green chilies. Apples double the size of outdoor-grown cousins. Carrots planted in March that are harvested in early June.

The region taking advantage of high tunnels more than any other is the Kenai Peninsula Borough. There are more high tunnels on the Kenai per capita than anywhere in the U.S., according to the National Resource Conservation Service, a soil and water conservation division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

So why are the plastic structures so popular? People have been getting them for almost free.

From 2010 to 2014, 460 high tunnels were built in Alaska under the Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, a federally funded nationwide program authorized under the 2008 Farm Bill. Farmers buy the high tunnels out of pocket and then the program reimburses them over a four-year period as long as they can show they’re maintaining the structures