Farmers Are Constantly Innovating In Western North Carolina

May 15, 2019


  Outside of Murphy in Cherokee county at the tip of Western North Carolina. We’re heading to a small farm where innovation brought one woman a new career.

 

Past a wide creek and a pasture of running horses, the small RCP Farm sits outside of Murphy. California-native Christina Newhouse has lived here since 2005 when she moved across the country with her husband Robert.

Newhouse is keeping a close eye on her high tunnel right now because squirrels have been sneaking in and eating her strawberries:

 

“As you can see we have a lot of strawberries that are just starting to set. And as you can see here - there is a little bite out of it. Let’s find one for you. Here you go!”

 

A high tunnel looks like a greenhouse. The big difference is that the plants are in the ground not in pots. The plastic sides help heat up the soil so farmers can plant crops early and grow them year round. That’s why her strawberries were ready back in April. It gets toasty in the high tunnel.

 

“I’m glad you noticed that. My mom actually calls this the hot tunnel not the high tunnel.”

 

Newhouse wasn’t always a farmer. In 2013, she heard about a new government program promoting and funding for this unique method of farming. The higher yield and help paying for the structure were too good to pass up. That’s when she started growing organic ginger and tumeric.

“Everything that I’ve ever grown it was because I wanted to grow something that somebody else wasn’t. I really wanted to capitalize on that market opportunity,” says Newhouse. She explained that high tunnels also reduce erosion - which is important in the steep Western North Carolina topography.

 

She was so successful with high tunnel farming that the local Cherokee County extension agent convinced her to teach other farmers how to plant and market high tunnel crops.

 

“I grow a variety of produce and I do a lot of trials to see how things actually produce in the high tunnel so that when I do my classes I can share that information,” says Newhouse, who showed BPR her different varieties of lettuce, delphiniums and spring salad onions.

High tunnels operate much like a greenhouse by capturing the heat from the sun. The sides and back of this high tunnel can be opened to regulate the temperature.
Credit Lilly Knoepp

Newhouse has taught high tunnel workshops for the last four years across the seven westernmost counties of the state.  These workshops are funded by grants from of the National Resources Conservation Service High Tunnel Initiative. The program started in 2010.

 

“As they continue to do what they are supposed to do they become more popular,” says Newhouse. “If it works it works.”

 

And it seems to be working - Newhouse estimates there are now about 100 farmers that have adopted the method in the region.

 

Many, she says, were her students.