We applied for a USDA research grant through NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Service) to evaluate high tunnels. The research entails reporting to the USDA what and how much we plant, amendments used on the soil and what our yields are, each year for three years. We have read about high tunnels, their limitations as well as benefits so this gives us a leg up. Because we are new farmers (under ten years of farming), we qualified for a 90/10 split on costs.
We received word that our application was accepted and that we would be in the first round of funding. Theoretically, it was a 90/10 split in costs. Actually after everything is said and done, it will be about a 70/30 split which still isn't bad but we are absorbing the greater of the two numbers. What is bad is that these things are sold as being easy to set up. I swear, we were told it could go up in a week and just about, anybody could build them.
Now, I have documented on these pages what skills I have when it comes to building (see, Why I Should Stick to Growing). Nevertheless, this was an opportunity that seemed to good to pass up. First great thing we did was call the general contractor that worked on our house. In order to budget we had to find out his costs. He gave us a period where he would have a window to fit the project in. He said he needed to add another person and that would be an additional cost to the one already quoted.
Here is where the first major mistake took place. I decided that I had the ability to follow orders and could quickly learn what needed to be done in order to a.) Help, b.) Not be a hindrance and c.) Learn how this thing was constructed for future reference. The second major mistake was when Bob, the contractor, decided to use me as his help.
From the beginning, things were hard, starting right out of the gate with the delivery. I knew it was coming in a tractor-trailer and that eighteen-wheelers cannot make it up to our barn. Fortunately, there is an area in front of the driveway were we can accept deliveries like 3,000 gallon black water tanks and high tunnels the size of a football field. The day the tunnel arrived, I was prepared to take delivery. The driver gets out of his truck looks at my tractor with pallet forks and says, "You going to use that to carry this thing?” "Well, yes I do or thought I was". He asks, "Do you know what this thing is?” I wondered, does he often have customers that order things without knowing what they are getting, sort of the adult version of grab bags?
"Yes," I answered "Of course", while my anxiety is hitting new highs; he is opening the back door. I guess I forgot to mention the high tunnel is 12x35x96. I do have a small tractor, a John Deere, and it is a workhorse. Slowly but surely we got the thing off the truck, piece by piece. Now the tractor almost tipped over a couple of times but it was brief seconds of terror interspersed with sighs of relief.
It took me all of three hours to unload the truck and move the pieces up to the staging area. Add another four hours to unpack and inventory everything except for the missing parts. They would come later on after a phone call to the company. Bob told me when he would be available and I took off work for that week. The company told us, it would take about a week to put up. I forgot to ask if that estimate was metric or decimal, I remember a NASA mistake like that once.
We were basing the work estimate and people needed on the information from the company. DO NOT BELIEVE THEM. IT IS NOT EASY TO PUT UP AND YOU NEED MORE THAN TWO PEOPLE. I will not go into details mainly because of heat stress related reasons and I forgot allot of what went on that first week. Temperatures ranged from 85-96 degrees with heat indexes rising as high as 110 degrees.
I do remember drinking a gallon and a half of water each day, being too tired at the end of the day to do anything other then shower, drink water and sit in front of a running fan. I remember day four, it was 96 degrees and we were drinking water every half hour. We were digging wholes were the motorized post whole digger would not sink into the ground. In that, 35x96 foot print the soil ranged the whole spectrum of grades. You name it we ran into it, sand, clay, loam, silt. We hit sand stone. When you would hit the sand stone with the digging bar, it had the timber of hitting cement.
We quit at 2:30 that day. I went in the house and sat in the shade on the front porch. I had a big jug of water and I started noticing that my vision was getting hazy and I had stopped sweating. I realized these to be signs of heat stress so I headed up to the shower to get a nice cold drenching. I took a prolonged shower and started feeling refreshed. I got dressed and went down stairs to sit in front of a fan. The house is air-conditioned but that was not enough. Before I got down the stairs, my muscles started cramping all over my body, my legs, my fingers, my stomach muscles and back. Because of various reasons, we have a bunch of those blue ice packs in the freezer. I was placing ice packs and ice jugs all over my body and forcing water down my gullet.
I kept ice on my body and kept drinking water. Had I gone to the emergency room that was all they were going to do so I saved my self the trip. Slowly the muscle spasms abated, my vision got better and I started going to the bathroom. All good signs, so I just kept up with what I was doing. When my wife got home, she asked how things went and as I was explaining, she asked, "What is wrong with your voice?" I was tired, my energy was at a low point, and I told her so. Last thing I needed was for her to know I was suffering heat stress. There probably would have been an over-reaction and she would not have let me out to play the next day.
"What are all the ice packs for?" She is observant, "muscle ache.” I said. She was okay with that answer and she went on to change clothes and take care of the chickens. I was no good, usually I work two hours a day on farm related activities, after getting off work but I could not do it. Once I was inside that was it, I was getting ready to go to bed. Time of day did not matter getting my energy back for the next’s day work was the point. My wife said that she has never seen me sleep as I did that first week. I do not know that for real I was sleeping, so I could not tell.
Well, one week stretched into two. I worked the weekend to catch up on the farm stuff. By the second week I had to go back to work on Thursday. Monday was Memorial Day, so I had that off and did more farm work. I worked with Bob on Tuesday and Wednesday. I was never so glad to get back to my real job, as I was in my entire life. I do not see how people in the construction trade do it. I thought for as hard as I work growing for six months and during the cold months cutting down dead trees and splitting them for firewood that I could keep up. I was close but I was wrong. I have always had respect for people in the trades especially those craftsmen that take pride in their work, like Bob. It was great working for him and I did not want to let him down but in the end, I had to give it to him. I was ready to go back to work and glad for it.
The high tunnel is completed and we have planted tomatoes in it to see how far into the winter they last. We are going to try to grow throughout the winter so it should be interesting. I know this thing is going to be great! How do I know this? Because, nothing good ever came from something easy and this was no easy project!
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