Fresh, locally-grown produce is commonplace year round in many parts of the United States, but harvesting fruits and vegetables is nearly unheard of in Omaha, Nebraska this time year when frigid temperatures and bone-chilling winds are routine. However, nestled on the outskirts of Omaha at Omaha Home for Boys Cooper Farm sits a new structure that will potentially allow produce to be grown even during the harsh winter months.
The structure that promises to extend the growing season of Cooper Farm’s produce is a new high tunnel. A high tunnel is similar to a greenhouse in size, appearance and purpose but it is not artificially heated like some greenhouses. Rather a high tunnel is completely passively heated by the sun.
“The new high tunnel really allows us to create ideal growing conditions for produce and protects the crops from harmful environmental elements,” said Scott Yahnke, Agriculture Program Coordinator at Omaha Home for Boys. “As long as we don’t have an extended period of time with heavy cloud cover, it’s going to be noticeably warmer in the high tunnel than outside, even during these cold winter days.”
The purpose and key benefit of the new high tunnel is the extension of the growing season. The high tunnel will allow planting to begin earlier in the spring. It’s estimated that produce, such as cucumbers and tomatoes, will be available more than a month sooner than without the use of a high tunnel.
The growing season in the fall and winter will be extended even more with the new high tunnel. “If we get some hearty greens, spinach, kale and lettuce established at the end of summer or early fall, we could potentially continue to harvest from those plants even throughout the winter,” said Scott.
The extended growing season will increase the amount of fresh produce the Home can offer to its existing consumers. The additional produce harvested will be fed to youth and staff at Omaha Home for Boys’ Dining Hall. Additionally, the Home’s produce is sold at Phil’s Foodway, a local grocery store, and used to create dishes at Au Courant Regional Kitchen, a restaurant in the Benson neighborhood in Omaha.
Construction of the high tunnel began on September 11 last year with site preparation followed by measurement of the high tunnel’s footprint. Next, the 7’ tall side stakes were placed in the ground and assembly of the roof’s arching structures began. The arches were then attached to the side stakes, additional skeletal components were built and the end walls were constructed. Last, all hands were on deck to pull the plastic cover over the high tunnel to bring the project to completion on November 20.
Scott along with several Omaha Home for Boys’ staff constructed the high tunnel and Omaha Home for Boys’ youth gained hands-on experience during construction as well. One of the most instrumental people in the construction process was Stacy Adams, an Associate Professor of Practice in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. “I am very grateful for Stacy’s assistance,” said Scott. “He volunteered his time and came to the farm a number of times to guide us and assist with construction. I went into this not having any experience in high tunnel construction, so Stacy’s expertise was extremely valuable and very much appreciated.”
Funding for the high tunnel came through a grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). NRCS provides America’s farmers and ranchers with financial and technical assistance to voluntarily put conservation on the ground, not only helping the environment but agricultural operations too. NRCS funded $4,100 of the $4,600 needed for the high tunnel project.
About Cooper Farm
Nestled in the scenic Missouri River valley hills, Omaha Home for Boys Cooper Farm is located just 3 miles north of the Home’s main campus. The working farm houses the Home’s gardens and provides for the raising of livestock, such as cattle and chickens. Youth from Omaha Home for Boys Residential Care Program work alongside staff at the farm and gain valuable, hands-on work experience. The farm also gives youth the opportunity to participate in 4-H where they build positive character traits, learn responsibility and gain self-confidence.
Ways to Help
A donation of grain, feed or livestock offers a unique way to support the operation of Cooper Farm and the youth who so greatly benefit from their time at the farm.
Monetary gifts in support of Cooper Farm are also greatly appreciated in helping the Home further its mission to change and save the lives of youth.