From High School to High Tunnels

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Main Street Farms owner Allan Gandelman discusses the upcoming growing season with his FSA Farm Loan Officer, Roger Thomas, while Swiss chard transplants are planted by the farm crew.

By Lynnette Wright, Public Affairs Specialist, New York Farm Service Agency

In the days when high school social studies teacher Allan Gandelman taught kids about the history of the world, he began to notice the food his students were eating before class. He didn’t consider soda and chips a healthy breakfast. He also noticed that many of his students were from limited resource families, which made access to nutritious food outside of school difficult.

“I realized that a main issue of why students had difficulty learning was that they had very poor diets,” Gandelman said. “I decided to stop teaching and devote myself to farming and to educating children about farming and healthy eating. I thought if children could have a better diet then they would have an easier time in school.”

In order to teach children about farming, Gandelman knew he had to grow the food where the children were – in the city. In 2011, Gandelman started an urban farm on one acre in Homer, New York. From there, Main Street Farms was born.

Gandelman installed a high tunnel, a tent-like temporary structure to maintain temperature and moisture control while pitched outdoors. He did it with the help of a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) grant. He also applied for a USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) microloan that provided low-interest operating funds to get his small, diversified organic vegetable and aquaponics operation off the ground. High tunnels or hoop houses can be used to farm in urban settings and provide more environmental control, which helps to extend the growing season.

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Main Street Farms uses greenhouses to start many of their vegetables in transplant packs. After the seeds germinate and the temperature outside rises, the seeds are transplanted into the ground.

Main Street Farms now sells vegetables, greens and tilapia at local and regional farmers markets and to local restaurants and schools in addition to running a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) network. In a CSA, consumers buy a “share” of the fruits and vegetables and then weekly throughout the growing season receive a box of produce that is ready for harvest. To help serve lower income families, Main Street Farms has a payment plan option and accepts Electronic Benefit Transfer/Food Stamps for their CSA, which will feed more than 300 families this year.

Gandelman raises the tilapia in three in-ground cement tanks. The water from the tilapia tanks is circulated into hydroponic microgreen troughs above the tanks. The microgreens use the water, rich with nutrients from the waste of the fish, to grow and then filter the water clean so it can be pumped back down into the tilapia tanks.

After using every square foot available on the Homer farm, Gandelman decided to expand. He found a half-acre lot in the middle of the city of Cortland and installed three more high tunnels in 2015. This year, Main Street Farms rented 30 acres from a retiring farmer. The new land will be home to more than 50 varieties of vegetables and herbs.

With expansion came the need for more employees, although finding help can be a challenge.

“People don’t realize how hard and fast we work, and when we say you have to lift 50 pounds, it’s not one time a day, it’s 100 times a day,” Gandelman said.

As Gandelman expands his urban operation he is able to continue his passion for teaching by providing even more educational tours and internships for school-aged youth. Every time he hears that a child or CSA member ate a new vegetable and loved it, it makes his hard work trying to change the way people in his rural city of Cortland eat, worth it.

For more information about local food and markets visit http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/knowyourfarmer?navid=kyf-kyf. For more information on FSA programs and loans visit www.fsa.usda.gov or contact your local FSA office. To locate an office, visit http://offices.usda.gov.

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