High Tunnel Initiative aims to ‘bring people together’ to grow food

Reporting and writing by Diane Kilivris, photos by Ilenia Pezzaniti

Upon learning that Akron has a “High Tunnel System Initiative,” one might envision high speed trains jetting through tubes from city to suburb. Nope. Not even close. 

These high tunnels are structures designed to serve urban farmers in growing high-quality produce nearly year-round. 

And the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is offering grants to Akron residents who have a bit of land and the desire to grow food. Those in urban food deserts — areas more than a mile away from grocery stores with fresh produce — are especially encouraged to apply.

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A high tunnel, or “hoop house,” is a metal-framed arched structure covered with heavy polyethylene. They significantly extend the normal growing season by allowing for natural climate control and protection from harsh weather and pests. High tunnels are taller than greenhouses and significantly less expensive. Plus, they are moveable to allow for farming rotation. Fruits and vegetables in high tunnels are typically planted in the ground as opposed to structures such as raised beds.

Cleveland began a high tunnel initiative in 2012 as a pilot project introduced by Congresswoman Marcia Fudge to bring quality produce to food deserts in urban areas. 

Let’s Grow Akron has been using high and low tunnels for the better part of a decade. In 2014 Trinity United Church of Christ in North Akron received the first hoop house funded by the USDA initiative. It was later donated to Akron Cooperative Farms, where it is currently in use. 

In 2018 the Akron Urban League set up a high tunnel via the initiative, which is used for educational programs for youth. Let’s Grow Akron currently cares for it.

Presently, there are roughly 200 high tunnels in operation in the Akron area, including those funded by the High Tunnel Initiative.

In 2018, Kashava Holt took a job as an outreach specialist with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, also partnering with the NRCS, and began actively promoting the High Tunnel Initiative in Akron. Holt was a University of Akron student, founder of the school’s Urban Agriculture Program, a lifelong vegetarian and an impassioned advocate for bringing the Akron community together through growing healthy food. 

He developed online information sessions and actively helps applicants through the process. He has even helped physically set up the high tunnels once they arrive.

While Holt’s mission started at the University of Akron with the desire to improve the quality of healthy food options available on campus, his passion grew. 

“I wanted to have a bigger impact throughout the city, beyond the university,” Holt says. 

Last May, Holt started the nonprofit Akron Urban Agriculture. Its mission is to advocate and promote anything agriculture-related in the Akron area, including the high tunnel initiative. Now with an active presence on social media, the nonprofit is focused on reaching out to anyone who would like to become involved in Akron’s agriculture scene.

“We’re giving students the opportunity to volunteer with AHTI, learn more about the different existing gardeners and farmers promoting farming and new gardening techniques, and farm to table,” Holt says. They also plan to advocate for better-quality food in Akron’s public schools.

Holt is currently a senior in the fire protection technology program while also majoring in construction engineering. Although his interests seem broad, his focus is clear: to create new, healthier standards of living in Akron.

“We really need to have something that is going to bring people together. And think about it — food is the main thing that brings people together,” Holt says.

Much of Akron Urban Agriculture’s startup initiatives have been put on hold by COVID-19, including getting a high tunnel for the university. But Holt says they’re working on making connections in the community, getting the word out, building capital, hiring more students and acquiring land. He would like to see the university claim a high tunnel of its own, but space is an issue. The group is encouraging landowners to donate space for farming, both for the University and for residents, especially those living in food deserts.

One area high tunnel obtained through the program belongs to Akron Cooperative Farms in North Hill. The farm consists of 4.5 acres of land in the area that was Patterson Park and Sammis Park, the baseball fields across from North High School. Founder Doug Wurtz obtained the land for community farming in 2019. 

At Akron Cooperative Farms, local residents, mostly Nepali and Bhutanese immigrants, have access to 20-foot by 20-foot plots where they can plant whatever they wish. 

“They grow food for their families and to sell at our farmers’ market in the spring,” Wurtz says. The farm’s new 30-foot by 72-foot hoop house will go into use this spring and Wurtz is preparing the soil inside.

Holt says that there are few limits on who can obtain a high tunnel, but they do come with a five-year contract and some growing restrictions. After the contract has ended, the grower owns the hoop house. Funding comes from the NRCS through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Akron residents can put them in their backyards given they meet certain soil test requirements and get a city permit. Rented or leased properties are eligible with permission of the owner.

And no one is left on their own to learn high tunnel farming. Once a hoop house is acquired, the High Tunnel Initiative also provides workshops to help new farmers learn how to use the structures, as they’re different from regular outdoor growing. 

Lisa Nunn of Let’s Grow Akron, which currently uses three high tunnels and has been gardening in them for years, says they take some trial and error. 

“It is its own little microclimate,” Nunn says. “I would encourage anyone who gets one to attend the workshops.” 

Once proficient, gardeners can dramatically extend the growing season. Nunn says they can get up to three rotations on certain crops, growing 10 months a year. Summer crops can be planted as early as late March and early April as opposed to May or June.

“It’s important we preserve our ecosystem and the people who depend on it,” Holt says. “The high tunnel practice gives cities and individuals an opportunity to regenerate the soil and air, and we can make our city a model city so other places can learn how it’s done.”

For information about the Akron High Tunnel Initiative or Akron Urban Agriculture, visit akronurbanagriculture.com or email akronurbanagriculture@gmail.com

Diane Kilivris is a freelance writer and podcaster living in West Akron. When not working, she can be found on the tennis court or happily knitting in a comfy chair.