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Published May 04 2012

High tunnel, low cost

Felton, Minn. - From a distance, it looks like a giant snake skeleton against the blue Minnesota sky.

But drive closer, and you realize this is a high tunnel like few others.

Community-supported agriculture farmers Ben Kragnes and Tyne Stormo are building the unusually long and narrow greenhouse for a fraction of what these structures usually cost.

The key to their penny-wise approach: PVC pipes instead of metal frames, repurposed materials from their family farm, inexpensive lumber from a local home-supply store and Ben’s considerable ingenuity.

“He’s a MacGyver,” says Stormo, his girlfriend and business partner.

“Part of the fun of making your own greenhouse is that you get to engineer new stuff,” says Kragnes, a science-minded 26-year-old who quit school after discovering he didn’t really want to be a pharmacist.

Instead, Kragnes found himself back on the farm run by his parents, David and Peggy. Kragnes wanted to farm, but he knew he had to try something different, like organic, to get the most profit out of a relatively small operation.

After an initial bout of skepticism, Kragnes’ parents now fully support their son’s forays into organic methods, he says. The Kragnes Family Farms CSA sold eight full shares last year. This year, their goal is 50 shares.

“We’re getting opportunities most small-scale farmers don’t get,” Kragnes says.

Now Kragnes and Stormo grow 47 types of produce on land that’s organic or in transition. A 9-acre plot south of the family farmstead will be filled with typical produce as well as not-so-typical crops like cranberries, hazelnuts and garlic.

This is also the site of their first high tunnel; Stormo says they hope to build several more.

Kragnes decided to build their own tunnel from scratch last year after a Sept. 15 frost, followed by weeks of warm weather, cut off their indeterminate tomato supply.

The first tunnel measures 301 feet long and 12½ feet wide. The dimensions are narrow enough that PVC pipe can be used to form the frame but wide enough that Kragnes can pull the custom-built cultivator through with a tractor.

“I went narrow and long so I could increase the square footage without increasing the cost,” Ben says.

The PVC pipe is anchored to recycled beet picker rod, which is embedded in a base of treated green lumber.

The only material they couldn’t save money on was the plastic that will be draped over the frame. Once completed, the high tunnel will extend the growing season for tomatoes and multiple varieties of peppers.

Kragnes says he had to sacrifice some of the durability of a more permanent, metal-framed structure in order to keep his building budget at around $2,200. His high tunnel cost just 55 cents per square foot, compared to the $2-per-square-foot cost of even the cheapest prefabricated high tunnel.

At that rate, he figures his homemade hothouse won’t need to last long to start turning a profit.

“I hope to get all my money back by this fall,” he says.

If you go:

What: Kragnes Family Farms CSA Tour, includes opportunity for visitors to transplant new plant starts, meet their CSA providers and ask questions.

When: May 24

Where: Kragnes Family Farms, Felton, Minn.

Info: www.kragnesfamilyfarms.com; (218) 234-7894. The Kragnes CSA also will be toured as part of “A Day on the Organic Farm” event set for June 9 on the Lee Thomas farm north of Moorhead. For information on the latter event, call Moorhead Community Education at (218) 284-3400.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525