Dancing Bears Farm poised for future as high tunnel garden use is refined

Jim Degiovanni shows off a tray of tomato seedlings ready to be planted in his high tunnel. The growing season is extended for plants in the tunnel, with added benefits of no blight and far fewer weeds.

By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
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The newest tool in use at Dancing Bears Farm in St. Joseph is a high tunnel, also called a hoop house. “This is the future of locally-grown produce in northern climates,” said lawyer-turned-farmer Jim Degiovanni.

He and his wife, Mary, bought their property in the early 2000’s, and built a home for themselves and their youngest child, who was still at home.

They rather casually ran a bed and breakfast for about four years, never pushing too hard.
“We averaged five to six nights per year,” Degiovanni said.

He did not grow up a farmer, but when a friend got him started making maple syrup, things took off from there.

After taking a course at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, he built a brick oven near the house and took a selection of wood-fired bread products to the St. Joseph Farmers Market. It was a lucrative activity, but took huge amounts of time.

Instead, they transitioned more to produce, also raising chickens and lambs. “This year we have Cornish-cross chickens partially in pasture, and white rock and Rhode Island Reds as free-range birds,” he said.

“On an Easter Sunday a few years ago, our friends, the Lyndgaards, invited us to see their lambs,” he said. “We were originally thinking of making cheese.”

The lambs and sheep serve a triple purpose, providing wool, meat and milk. They are Icelandics.Degiovanni believes there are at least six families in the St. Joseph area with Icelandics.

Dancing Bears, a certified organic farm, also produces strawberries, raspberries and rhubarb. There will not be any maple syrup this year due to unfavorable weather conditions.

Tomatoes are the biggest cash crop for Dancing Bears, with peppers, eggplant and cucumbers also being large crops. On a smaller scale, asparagus, beans, kale and beets are also grown.

“The Good Earth Co-op in St. Cloud said our tomatoes were the best last year,” said Degiovanni. “We supply Good Earth, St. Joseph Farmers Market and the White Horse Restaurant in St. Cloud with tomatoes.”

Degiovanni is now using something fairly new in farming — a high tunnel.

“The University of Minnesota (U of M) Extension Service developed the concept to extend the growing season,” said Degiovanni.

“It can be 65 degrees and windy and cloudy outside and 104 inside the high tunnel,” he said. “Tomatoes are started by seed and they are not grown hydroponically. I use drip irrigation and fertilize mainly with fish emulsion.”

On sunny days it’s 90 degrees inside the tunnel by 9 a.m. The sides of the tunnel can be rolled up to keep an even temperature.

Last fall, Degiovanni was harvesting into the first week of November, using very little additional heat, which is provided when necessary by a propane heater. It was used about six to eight nights between September and November.

“We use Agribon fabric to cover the tomatoes for extra frost protection,” he said. “But spinach and carrots survived the winter inside the tunnel without any heat.”

The tunnels have been used for several years in Europe.

“Some people in this area have been doing 12-month gardening using Agribon, where the plants are dormant during winter but do not die,” said Degiovanni.

“My plan is to have two tunnels — one for tomatoes and a second for establishing cold-weather crops,” he said. “Some people have been growing dwarf peach and plum trees in them. There is an organic farmer near Albany who is growing raspberries with drip watering, and he has not had a mold problem.”

Degiovanni is using a 30-foot by 70-foot tunnel, and it doesn’t even use a 10th of an acre of space.

“At the U of M, they’ve been producing 60 pounds of tomatoes per plant per year,” he said. “My goal is 30 pounds per plant. There are seven rows in the tunnel, and using five of them for tomatoes with 40 plants per row, would yield 6,000 pounds of tomatoes in one season,” he said.

Outside, there are weeds, blight and a short season — but not in the tunnel.

Dancing Bears will be at the St. Joseph Farmers Market every Friday through Oct. 19. Lamb meat is offered as well as chicken, eggs, fruits and vegetables, flower bouquets, handmade soaps and wool (both roving and spun).