FARMGIRL ANGST: Control Issues


This past winter I went to a farmers’ convention and attended a few sessions on high tunnels. When a member of the audience said, “I can sleep at night.” I was sold.

I marched into the trade show, found the sales rep and wrote a check. What I invested in is a hoop house tall enough and long enough to drive my tractor in, a controlled growing environment, a bubble.

The high tunnel is really a hyper-environment, transforming the greenhouse affect into an asset, where the light bounces back and forth so many times that the manufacturers claim my plants will grow faster in their tunnel. Mine is a three-season greenhouse, made to be “de-skinned,” the plastic removed and hibernated during months where snow load and violent wind might be a bigger factor. Forgoing the strength it would need to survive the winter is one way the building gains it structural brevity. There need be very little bracing and everything, even the construction manual, is somewhat minimalist. The tunnel is a tent and a Quonset hut combined, utilizing metal arches and ropes to achieve the almost nothingness with which it spans and protects any range of crops.  It’s like having a 10th of an acre of Southern California right in the middle of southern Sagaponack. It’s paradise, or the beginning of it.

The other way this building can be so light-duty in spite of its square footage is that it relies on me to take care of it. When I began this project I was more focused on wresting control of the climate from the weather than I was on thinking about taking that control myself. Without weather, nothing happens. To keep crops watered, as the sky would, and the right temperature, as our maritime climate customarily does: it’s all got to be monitored and delivered by me. And, yet, while the tunnel may be isolated from the real weather, it is still heavily influenced by what’s going on outside. There are days in Sagg when the sun comes and goes 10 times, when fogs set up and dissipate. I spend the majority of those days trying to maintain, by balancing sun and breeze, the perfect growing conditions for my early tomatoes. I do this by adjusting the sides of the lengthy, flimsy house, either raising plastic to where it becomes snug between the pipe and the criss-crossed rope, or lowering it back down to where it meets the earth. I can scarcely focus on anything else; left closed, the tunnel could cook the crops, left open, it will quickly cool and thereby defeat its formidable purpose. By the time the sun finally gives up and sets, I feel like I have taken in and out the hemline on the Hindenburg 48 times. No wonder that man slept at night.

Marilee Foster farms and writes from Sagaponack.