Chinese high tunnel part of innovation at a southwest Missouri teaching farm

You can get just about anything you want at Millsap Farms, including an education about market farming.
Curtis Millsap estimates that he and his family, and a crew of interns, feed about 200 families on 2.5 acres of his 20-acre farm near Springfield. While another 7 acres of the farm sometimes includes sheep, poultry and cattle, it’s the vegetable operation that supports Curtis, his wife, Sarah, and their nine young children. Curtis utilizes two greenhouses and three seasonal high tunnels to grow produce year-round, which he sells through the Farmers Market of the Ozarks and to 75-100 Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) customers.
One of Millsap’s high tunnels is a Chinese high tunnel, which he built with funding through a Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Previously, Curtis received $4,878 from NRCS to install a conventional seasonal high tunnel through the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
There are hundreds of seasonal high tunnels in Missouri, including nearly 500 funded by NRCS, but Millsap’s Chinese high tunnel is the only one in Missouri, and one of only a few in the United States. Curtis received $20,000 from a $50,000 CIG obtained by the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks to build the Chinese high tunnel, pay for energy renovations in other greenhouses and to establish a grazing system.
The Chinese high tunnel differs from other seasonal high tunnels in that one of the long sides of the 23×70-foot structure and both short ends are heavily insulated with concrete and soil.
“One of the things the CIG did was improve our efficiency in the high tunnel,” Curtis said. “It is warmer in the morning and warmer in the evening (in the Chinese high tunnel) than in the other greenhouses. But what’s interesting is that midday, it is cooler in there than in the other greenhouses. This thing never spikes. It has a smooth curve, which is better for plants.”
Curtis said the different design is popular in China, where energy is expensive and labor is cheap.
“I was looking into the future and thinking that energy is not going to get cheaper, so it made sense,” Curtis said. “And this is a teaching farm, so I have the workers.”
Millsap’s workers include seven apprentices who are compensated with room and board, a farming education and a stipend.
“These are people who seriously want to experience this and see if they want to be farmers,” Curtis said. “We’ve been doing this for seven years. I’ve had 20 apprentices, and seven are still actively involved in agriculture.”
The farm also serves as a site for farm tours and other community events, all intended to further the buy-local movement. USDA promotes the movement through its “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” campaign.
“We have this great promotion in ‘buy local,’ but that will go away if we can’t meet demand,” Curtis said. “We try to get as many people out to the farm as we can, show them what farming is about, maybe get their hands dirty.”
In southwestern Missouri, where soils tend to be high in clay and rock content, growing vegetables sometimes requires different techniques.
“We have a few obstacles here with shallow soils,” said NRCS District Conservationist Mark Green. “We call this soil with substance.”
Curtis overcame the shallow, rocky soil obstacle by building raised beds inside the high tunnel.
Not raised on a farm, Curtis said he learned to farm by attending conferences, by reading and by visiting with lots of other farmers. He said it was something he found himself called to do.
“It’s not something I was looking to do, but sometimes when you are called, you better listen,” he said.


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