Sept. 5, 2008

Old Order farmers profit from new order idea

Six years ago Howard Hoover, a member of the Groffdale Conference Mennonite community in upstate New York, designed his first high tunnel in a flash in the middle of the night.

"Did you ever sit inside a window on a sunny winter day and feel the heat and then go outside and feel that it's bitterly cold?" asks Hoover. "I didn't have the money to build a proper greenhouse with plumbing, heating, ventilation, foundation, concrete -- the whole nine yards -- but in my steel shop I could make some hoops and stretch plastic over them to build a place that would be nice and warm on a cold day."

Although Hoover describes his first tunnel as a "sorry little affair," he found that his tomatoes grew better inside it than in the field. He showed the tunnel to Judson Reid, an extension associate with the Cornell Vegetable Program, who saw the advantages immediately.

A fine partnership was born.

Reid now specializes in conducting research about high-tunnel agriculture to share with growers across the state. Some projects -- such as testing the viability of growing seedless watermelons inside tunnels -- take place on Hoover's farm.

"The nice part about working with Howard is that he'll let us come out to his farm and try out new ideas," says Reid. Hoover now uses three tunnels in his growing operations, and he also manufactures them for sale. Together Hoover and Reid travel the state giving talks on high-tunnel technology.

Hoover bought his farm (abandoned at the time) in the Finger Lakes region in the mid-1980s. Today there are 450 families in the four counties surrounding Penn Yan, comprising the largest group of Old Order people in the state. They operate 90 percent of the 300 dairy farms in Yates County. The thriving Finger Lakes Produce Auction provides them an outlet for fresh market vegetables, putting millions of dollars of new revenue into local communities.

High-tunnel technology is particularly appealing to Old Order farmers because the tunnels require a modest capital investment (usually recouped the first growing season); are ventilated by rolling up the sides rather then relying on a fan (a power outage in a greenhouse can heat the air to 100-plus degrees Fahrenheit in 5 minutes); are movable (hence can leave soil-born diseases behind); and reduce the need for pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. In addition, this technology is most profitable when there is an abundant, inexpensive labor pool.

"Clipping and tending the plants is easy work for small children," notes Hoover, who has 10. (The average number of children among families in Old Order communities is eight.) "And since we use no pesticides, it's safe for them to be in there."

While scholars once predicted the demise of the so-called Plain People, quite the opposite is true. Today the Empire State is home to more than 45 horse-and-buggy settlements. There are more than 2,000 pupils in the state attending 82 schools operated by Old Orders; one in four has opened since 2000.

Over the years, Reid has developed an extensive network of Old Order farmers with whom he works all across the state.

"Extension has to be based on personal relationships," says Reid, noting that although people with distinctive dress and lifestyle may look alike to outsiders, there are highly discrete groups with different preferences for acceptable types of technology. For example, one community allows electric fences while another does not. "You have to understand the community you are dealing with and tailor recommendations to help individuals meet their goals while respecting their boundaries," says Reid.

He says the notion some people hold that Old Order communities are closed off to extension efforts is not true.

"Old Orders have a tremendous internal network that includes written publications, winter meetings, peer-to-peer learning -- and it happens on national and international scales," says Reid.

High tunnels, which are generally profitable for mainstream farmers, are highly profitable for Old Order farmers, who have lower labor costs and a willingness to live on a lower household income.

"If I'm going to take my money and invest it and hope for a return, I'm going to plant tomatoes until such time as some other crop shows that it pays," says Hoover. "I do believe flowers probably will pay just as well, but I'd rather grow food for a hungry world."

Metta Winter is a writer with the Office of Publications and Marketing.