AK: High tunnel greenhouses on the Kenai Peninsula

Alaska, a farming capitol? It seems far-fetched, but it’s fast becoming a reality. In the last six years, a federal cost chare program through the USDA means giant greenhouses are popping up all over the state. Most of them can be spotted on the Kenai Peninsula.

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Over the last three years, Donna Rae Faulkner and Don McNamara have been building a farm with help from a cost share program through the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service. (Photo by Emily Schwing, Northwest News Network)
Over the last three years, Donna Rae Faulkner and Don McNamara have been building a farm with help from a cost share program through the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service. (Photo by Emily Schwing, Northwest News Network)

If you take the one road a few miles past Homer, you’ll catch a fantastic glimpse of Kachemak Bay: in the distance there are glacier-covered mountains and rugged coastline, but if you turn around, you’ll find yourself facing a long row of giant greenhouses.

These are high tunnels. A small fan whirrs inside one. It’s packed full of plants that bear the kinds of fruits and vegetables you’d expect to find on a dinner table closer to Mexico than Alaska?

Farmer Donna Faulkner takes the lead. The tunnel is about 12 feet high. It as wide as a football field end zone and only a quarter as long, but it is packed from wall to wall and floor to ceiling with plants.

“Yeah, this is the nightshades…”, Faulkner’s husband, Don McNamara said. “So, all things nightshade: eggplants and peppers and tomatoes and even tomatillos.”

Two layers of heavy duty plastic form the walls. They’re pulled tightly over a large metal frame and a fan pumps air between the plastic layers for added insulation. The temperature is about 95 degrees – just right for the produce that appears to be taking over.

“We do get pretty maximum production. We don’t have any problem putting out vegetables here,” Faulker laughed.

Donna Faulkner has always been a gardener. The couple got serious about farming three years ago.  That’s when Donna Faulkner said green-thumbed locals got wind of a government program.

“We were in that sort of little clan of people that do that and we said ‘oh, we should partake in that little cost share program,’” Faulkner said.

That ‘little program’ was funded in the 2008 Farm Bill. In 2010, the USDA launched it through the agency’s Natural Resource Conservation Service. Since then, 679 high tunnels have been erected in Alaska. More than half of them are right here on the Kenai Peninsula. Meg Mueller reviews applications for the program.

“When people found that they could get a cost share in helping get them installed, I think that helped spark more interest than there otherwise would have been,” Faulker said.

The NRCS provides assistance for high tunnels through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Mueller says an applicant has to compile a conservation plan as part of the process.

“Where people are growing in high tunnels, they often do it much more intensively, and so if they also use some of those other conservation practices: nutrient management, conservation crop rotation, and managing based on information and data that they are collecting, that’s the benefit that we are looking for,” Faulkner said.

The NRCS has obligated ten percent of the program’s funding – about 6.3 million dollars – in Alaska. The money defrays infrastructure costs associated with high tunnel construction, which costs about $11,000 dollars.

Donna Faulkner and Don McNamara have eight high tunnels where they grow everything from pumpkins and asparagus, to corn and even grapes.

“We’re hoping it’s going to work,” Faulker said. “That’s the plan certainly, so we’re all in. We’re all invested. We’re all in totally.”

Homer area residents can stop into the roadside farm stand to pick up tomatoes, herbs, squash and many other kinds of fruits and vegetables grown on site at Oceanside Farms. (Photo by Emily Scwing, Northwest News Network)
Homer area residents can stop into the roadside farm stand to pick up tomatoes, herbs, squash and many other kinds of fruits and vegetables grown on site at Oceanside Farms. (Photo by Emily Scwing, Northwest News Network)

The two have found ways to save money elsewhere. Beyond what it takes to run the small fan, high tunnels don’t require electricity. They’ve rigged up a system to collect rain water for irrigation and they make use of the sun year-round.

Faulkner said they can even grow food in the darkest months.

“Some of the Asian greens and kales and things like that can keep going through the winter,” Faulkner said. “We often do covers within covers, so we might have for instance another low tunnel over those things in the winter time to give them that added protection and on a sunny day it warms up just by solar, there’s no extra heat added to any of our high tunnels.”

If you spend a day at Oceanside Farms you’ll find what Faulkner describe as a “big government program that actually works” in a state where only five percent of fresh food is grown locally. So, despite all the labor, a business plan that’s only still coming together and questions about profitability, Don McNamara said he doesn’t regret their investment.

“We didn’t know quite what to expect when we got into this, but it’s working out well for us,” McNamara said. “It’s so much fun.  I get up every day and tell my sweet wife ‘We get to go farmin!”

And what better way to spread that kind of enthusiasm than through home grown food.