‘Maters in May?

By Ginna Parsons/NEMS Daily Journal

William Tucker loves a good tomato. But some years, he has a hard time waiting for them to become fully ripe in July.
So last fall, Tucker became part of a United States Department of Agriculture experiment to see if a high tunnel, or hoophouse, could produce the bright red fruit earlier than normal in Northeast Mississippi.
“I became a Master Gardener in 2005 and had been going to workshops and vegetable shows,” said Tucker, 61. “About three years ago, they started talking about high tunnels. They’d been doing them in China and Japan with great success.”
From the outside, a hoophouse looks pretty much like a greenhouse, but there are two major differences. Hoophouses have no electricity, and plants are sewn directly in the ground, rather than in pots.
In theory, the high tunnel should extend the growing season by three months, meaning Tucker expects to have tomatoes six weeks earlier in the season, then have a regular summer crop, and then have a late crop that extends six weeks into the fall.
“Everything is kind of experimental this first year,” said Tucker, who retired from the Mississippi Department of Transportation in 2009 after working there for 35 years. “I’ll have to adjust the schedule as I go.”

Traditional garden, too
Last October, Tucker and a crew of three spent a week putting up the hoophouse on his farm in Shannon. It’s covered with Visquine, a plastic sheeting that protects the plants from wind, hail, frost, snow and excessive rain. The sides of the hoophouse can be opened to allow for circulation when the temperature outside is above 40 degrees.
“We got 5 to 6 inches of rain last week, but it didn’t rain in there,” Tucker said, pointing to the structure, which has 20-foot-wide openings along the front and the back. An irrigation system allows just the right amount of water.
An added bonus is that because the plants aren’t stressed by the elements, they tend to be healthier, which means fewer pests.
The 200 tomato plants Tucker planted the last day of February are already thigh-high and covered in yellow blooms. A few of the plants even have small tomatoes on them.
“I had to go all the way to Biloxi to get the plants,” he said. “I’m shooting to have tomatoes by Memorial Day at the Tupelo Farmer’s Market.”
Tucker has been a regular vendor at the market since it opened in 2000.
Tomatoes aren’t the only things growing in Tucker’s high tunnel. He also has squash, zucchini, peppers, zinnias and sunflowers.
“The flowers are mine,” said Tucker’s wife, Patty, who is the director of the North Mississippi chapter of the American Red Cross. “And I guess you could also say I’m the blackberry and the strawberry picker.”
But the berries aren’t growing in the hoophouse. The Tuckers also have a traditional garden, which is planted with English peas, new potatoes, cabbage, onions, greens and another 200 tomatoes.
“He loves this. He is doing what he loves,” Patty Tucker said. “It’s not work for him. After about two hours, it’s work to me. But he’s living his dream, being a full-time farmer.”

Three-year experiment
For three years, Tucker will keep the data on his plants in the hoophouse for the USDA.
“The government wants to see if a high tunnel will do here,” he said. “I have to keep up with my expenses and stuff to see if it’s feasible to do this – if it’s profitable.”
Tucker said the snow earlier this year almost threw him for a loop.
“It was touch and go during the snow season,” he said. “It was just covered. And the wind has been rough on it, too, but it’s held up real well. At the end of the season, I’ll know if it was worth the work.”