MOSCOW MILLS, Mo. -- Bob Lober's transformation from corporate management to farming didn't happen overnight.

When he moved from St. Charles to a modest acreage outside Moscow Mills in 1989, the computer network manager was just looking for a way to escape the city and its urban lifestyle. The 54-year-old father of 12 didn't plan to be a farmer.

But over the next few years, the land worked its magic on Lober.

In 1996, Lober cut back his hours and opened St. Isidore Farm. He started small -- growing plots of vegetables and selling them at the St. Charles Farmer's Market.

Eventually, Lober began selling vegetables direct to area restaurants. Two upscale restaurants specifically mentioned St. Isidore's baby beets on their menus.

Despite his success, Lober still depended on part-time consulting work to make ends meet. Homemade high tunnels set him free. Now, the one-time corporate manager is a full-time organic farmer who in 2005 sold 25,000 pounds of fresh produce that he grew without using chemicals on about 1 1/3 acres. His gross sales totaled more than $60,000.

Today, Lober grows exclusively for four upscale restaurants in the St. Charles area. Not bad for a one-family operation.

"If I hadn't built the high tunnels, I couldn't have quit my part-time job because the high tunnels extended my growing season," Lober said. "I was able to make up for the money I lost quitting my job."

High tunnels, or hoop houses as they are sometimes called, are unheated greenhouses that can help vegetable and fruit producers extend their growing season so they can improve the profitability of their farms.

In late October, MU Extension Horticultural Specialist Jim Quinn took 25 growers from central Missouri on a tour of St. Isidore Farm to see how Lober has used homemade high tunnels and a commercially produced hoop house to lengthen the growing season of many of his most profitable vegetables. Participants also toured the Reckamp Farm in Wright City, Mo., where confinement hog producers David and Marylin Reckamp have diversified into vegetables and small fruits by using commercially produced high tunnels to capture an early market for their produce.

Lober told visitors he uses his high tunnels throughout the year to assist in growing a wide variety of produce, including lettuce, Swiss chard, heirloom tomatoes, spinach, carrots, turnips, peppers and fall squash. His homemade hoop houses, which are crafted from thick plastic tarps and PVC pipes, can be broken down into two 50-foot long sections and moved in a couple hours with the help of his teenage sons.

Eventually, however, Lober wants to replace the small hoop houses with larger, more permanent structures.
"I won't have kids at home forever," he said. "I want to have something I can maintain myself."

Lewis Jett, a state vegetable and crop specialist with Lincoln University in Jefferson City, said high tunnels not only lengthen the growing season for vegetable producers but protect the growing crop from extremes in temperature, strong winds, driving rain and destructive hail.

High tunnels also protect crops from harmful insects and diseases that can lower marketable yield, he said. Another benefit of such unheated, plastic-covered greenhouses is they can be used to intercrop many vegetable specials. On a small plot of land, hoop houses permit intensive production of food crops, he said.

In 2001, Jett conducted a study at the MU Bradford Research and Education Center to evaluate the yield performance of several tomato cultivars within a high tunnel and in the field. His study found that high tunnels significantly enhanced the yield of cultivar tomato.

"For growers interested in early tomato production, high tunnels seem to be an excellent technology to achieve this goal," Jett wrote in his report about the study. "Almost every cultivar that performs well in the field environment will excel in a high tunnel.

"Based on the result of this research," he concluded, "it is possible for a grower to have vine-ripe tomatoes from mid-June until October in the central Midwest by using high tunnels as a complement to field production."

Lober couldn't agree more. He confirmed Jett's conclusion that the best size for hoop houses is 20 feet wide by 100 feet long by 9 to 14 feet tall.

"What I've found is the bigger the high tunnel, the better the growing environment," Lober said. "The taller they are the longer it takes for them to heat up, but then they stay warm longer."

The Reckamp Farm is a much larger operation than Lober's 13 1/2-acre farm. The Reckamps have traditional row crops and a 150-sow farrow-to-finish hog operation on their 185-acre farm that they operate with David's parents, Gene and Marilyn. With subdivisions moving closer and closer, the Reckamps knew they had to diversify into something less smelly if they wanted to keep the farm. They settled on vegetables and small fruits.

David Reckamp told visitors the key to success was finding a way to extend the growing season. In 2003, the couple put up a FarmTek high tunnel for $1,800. By the end of the year they had produced 8,000 pounds of tomatoes and earned enough money to pay for that hoop house and buy three more.

That's not to say they haven't had problems. One year, a nasty downpour washed away a whole hoop house of tomato plants. Frustrated, but undaunted by the disaster, the couple raised the soil level in their high tunnels, and now there is a 6-inch step up from the ground outside.

"We learn something new every year," Marilyn Reckamp said. "And we're still learning."

Lober's advice to non-farmers venturing into the production and sale of vegetables is to start small, attend seminars and don't be afraid to make mistakes.

"I've been doing this for 10 years, but the first three don't count because I didn't know what I was doing," Lober said. "It's a leap of faith. You have to have an attitude that you can do this."

SOURCE: University of Missouri news release.