Vegetable production in southeast Pennsylvania is a significant economic contributor to the state. While exact figures aren’t easy to determine, Steve Bogash, Penn State Extension educator, said, “We were well in excess of $200 million in produce, and there were 140 high tunnel growers in 2012. Many more high tunnels have been built since that time.”
Bogash noted the strategic location of southeast Pennsylvania for marketing fresh vegetables. The southeast quadrant of the state where most of the state’s vegetable production occurs lies within the triangle formed by high population centers of Boston, Richmond, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.
High tunnel growing has increasingly been used in southeast Pennsylvania in vegetable production over the past 15 years. A significant increase occurred in the past five years with a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service cost-sharing program for construction of high tunnels. Bogash, who is also a high tunnel grower cited additional benefits of superior products and fewer disease and pest concerns for produce grown in high tunnels. Legislation enacted last year in Pennsylvania simplified taxing and provided tax benefits to high tunnel growers.
“Growers realize the benefit of high tunnel houses in expanding the growing season at a relatively low cost,” Bogash said. “Taxation of these structures as real estate made this practice cost prohibitive and a disincentive for new structures. This legislation assures the high tunnels will not subject growers to burdensome property tax increases.”
While the legislation provides tax benefits to growers with these structures on their properties, confusion remains among some growers on requirements for constructing high tunnel greenhouse and sales facilities. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture strongly supports the new legislation and is available for outreach and education. Bogash worked with the Secretary of Agriculture and provides the following information to help clarify any confusion on the specifics for high tunnels to qualify for this property tax exemption.
Specifics of two legislative changes
The two pieces of legislation amend two separate laws on local property taxation. The separate bills apply to first-class, second-class and smaller counties and exempt high tunnels from local property taxation. A high tunnel structure must meet the following:
- Is used for the production, processing, keeping, storing, sale or shelter of an agricultural commodity as defined in Section 2 of the Pennsylvania Farmland and Forest Land Assessment Act of 1974, or for the storage of agricultural equipment or supplies;
- Is constructed consistent with all of the following to include a metal, wood or plastic frame;
- When covered, has plastic, woven textile or other flexible covering; and has a floor made of soil, crushed stone, matting, pavers or a floating concrete slab.
- Legislative language distinguishes high tunnels from other agricultural facilities by the following:
- Designated floor materials are not considered to be permanent.
- Structures are considered equipment rather than taxable real estate.
- By design, structures may be moved elsewhere on the farm at any time.
When communicating with local municipalities, the seasonal nature and ag production status versus a sales facility such as farm market greenhouse can best be described as follows:
Seasonal direct marketing of agricultural commodities may occur from the high tunnel, but the structures are unlikely to operate throughout the year as a farm market greenhouse.
The County Assessment laws include sales as an eligible use for exemption, but this does not pre-exempt local Uniform Construction Code standards. Landowners may opt to move the facilities as needed or not to engage in direct marketing from the facilities to demonstrate the temporary nature of the structures.
- Storm water and land development management plans may be required by municipalities.
- County conservation districts and local USDA NRCS provide technical assistance on storm water management plans, and private engineering firms will assist in design. Storm water management is regulated under the authority of the Municipalities Planning Code (MPC). Land development plans are also authorized under the MPC for any physical improvements to the land, including excavation. Interpretation of this requirement varies by township and may be specific to each project. Requests for exemption should be directed to municipal officials.
- Very different rules apply to various municipalities in Pennsylvania. Bogash noted that growers may become involved in future legislation and policy by working through the Pennsylvania Landscape and Nurserymen’s Association and Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, or by contacting lawmakers directly.
High tunnels yield growing benefits
Bogash noted that even rudimentary tunnels with no heating or cooling capabilities significantly increase growing time.
“Growers can plant up to four weeks earlier, and continue growing four weeks later,” he said.
The extended time at both ends of the growing cycle means significant profit increase for growers.
“Tomatoes are king including slicing tomatoes, cherry tomatoes and grape tomatoes.”
Other major crops being grown in high tunnels include cucumbers, bell peppers, greens, strawberries and raspberries.
Extensive research is conducted at the 155-acre Penn State Southeast Agricultural Research and Extension Center (http://goo.gl/tv6l0j). The Center combines efforts of Departments of Plant Sciences, Entomology and Plant Pathology plus the USDA and some county extension educators. A number of variety trials, disease and pest resistance research and economic issues are studied. Field days allow growers, students and consumers to observe hands-on work of researchers. Ongoing research specific to high tunnel growing includes evaluating methods and varieties of various vegetables. A three-year study on production characteristics, flavor and shelf life of cucumber varieties was recently completed. A current project is under way to determine the tolerance and or resistance of different tomato varieties to leaf mold, one of the few diseases prevalent in high tunnel growing.
“Leaf mold is a major problem in high tunnels because of the humidity,” Bogash said. “Lack of air movement contributes to its developing.”
Research continues on numerous varieties to help growers in selecting varieties that are least likely to be susceptible to the leaf mold.
Farm groups that were instrumental in the legislation exempting high tunnels from local property tax include the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, Pennsylvania Landscape and Nurserymen’s Association, Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) and Pennsylvania Vegetable Association.
Cover and Photos by Steve Bogash & Penn State SEAREC