Built for Food

February 5, 2012 11:37 PM
Built for Food

Specialty buildings give grower a spring and fall

The first thought a visitor has when seeing Untiedt’s Vegetable Farm, just west of Minneapolis, is that this must not be Minnesota. The row crop, vegetable, fruit and bedding plant operation looks more like what you would see in California’s San Joaquin Valley. That is, minus the weather and the high greenhouse-like tunnels.

Another difference between Minnesota and the Sun Belt is that in addition to the nearly 40 vegetable and fruit crops, corn (both field corn and sweet corn) and soybeans are grown on Untiedt’s Vegetable Farm.

"It’s not the money but corn’s value as being part of the rotation," says general manager Paul Nelson.

Nelson sells 95% of his vegetables, fruit and bedding plants through direct sales at the Minneapolis Farmers Market, home to 230 vendors. Untiedt’s has two corner stands and has been selling there daily, spring through fall, for nearly 40 years. It also has 35 vegetable kiosks throughout the Twin City area of Minneapolis-St. Paul and area suburbs.

Extra Weeks of Growing. The high tunnels give Nelson extra weeks of optimal growing conditions in the frigid north.

They are built of heavy metal frames, covered with plastic and are not cheap, running from $30,000 to $200,000 per acre. The difference in price is due to snow load, durability and other features.

In the tunnels, Nelson grows fruits and vegetables that like the warm conditions. He is also experimenting with growing apple trees in the tunnels to see if it will give him fruit earlier in the fall.

"We’re hoping to get Honeycrisp apples two to three weeks earlier," he says. University experts say it won’t work, he adds, "but we like to try new things."

Using the tunnels has been a step-by-step learning experience for many years.

One mistake Nelson says he made early on was allowing the temperature in the tunnels to get too warm, making tomato flowers fall off. He learned that tomatoes don’t like temperatures above 88°F. To keep tomatoes cooler, he now rolls up the sides and paints the top of the tunnel with a chalklike substance to restrict direct sunlight.

Some of his high tunnels are closed at the ends and have propane heaters so crops can be planted on April 1, which is early for Minnesota. Nelson is also looking at geothermal tunnels that could inexpensively apply heat.

Intensive Farming. The high tunnels are part of Nelson’s desire to farm more intensively, something that the U.S. does not do nearly as well as farmers in Europe, he says. The reason: Europeans have to, and the U.S., with all its land, has had the luxury of not needing to do as much.

Nelson sees that changing for several reasons. First, there is more pressure on land due to a surge in population; second, it’s becoming more important to squeeze out more production per input used; and third, it’s important to get as much production as possible to be profitable.

"It’s a copycat world," Nelson says, adding that the U.S. can learn much from other countries.
Part of his thinking outside the box is hiring workers from all over the world, such as Ukraine, Russia and Mexico, who bring with them new ways of doing things. "We’re constantly soil sampling, tissue sampling, experimenting. As soon as you get comfortable, people pass you up," he says.

Why does Nelson grow so many different crops? "We may lose on one, but something else will pull us through," he says.

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