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High tunnels offer high value

Agriculture.com Staff 01/06/2006 @ 2:31pm

David and Marylin Reckamp, confinement hog producers from Missouri, have diversified into vegetables and small fruits. High tunnels extend their growing season and help them capture an early market for their produce.

St. Louis is sprawling. Every year more housing developments spring up along the fence rows of the surrounding rural communities. It's no different than the scene outside most major cities in the U.S.

David and Marylin Reckamp, who farm in nearby Wright City, Missouri, watched the building boom coming and saw a threat and an opportunity.

The couple operate a 150-sow farrow-to-finish hog confinement with David's parents, Gene and Marilyn. That could spell trouble with new neighbors if they wanted to expand in hogs. But, the situation opened a door for them to market fresh-picked produce and meats from their farm.

The trick was how to extend their growing season as long as possible, capturing top prices by getting their produce to market earlier than other growers could.

A high tunnel seemed like the solution. In February 2003, they erected their first 26x96-foot structure, which they ordered as a kit from the FarmTek catalog for under $1,800. The first year they grew 8,000 pounds of tomatoes, which paid for the tunnel with enough left over to put up another four the next spring. They've never looked back.

The Reckamps' first tomatoes are ready to pick in early June. They've been able to sell their produce at a premium because they aren't competing with the larger and later producers who supply grocery chains. They've also built a local base of loyal consumers who enjoy trips to the farm.

"High tunnels are best for first-time growers with good markets nearby," explains Lewis Jett, vegetable specialist with University of Missouri Extension. "You can grow a lot of crop on a small amount of space," he says. "Almost an acre's equivalent in 3,000 square feet." But a two-hour drive to market is generally the limit for local produce.

One crop can typically pay for the structure, so the risk involved is low, Jett says. "It's also easy to scale up, and it lets you spread out your labor more than you would with field vegetables."

Tomatoes are the highest-value crop in high tunnels, with typical yields of 20 to 30 pounds per plant. That's about four times the yield of field tomatoes. And the potential is there for 50 to 60 pounds per square foot, Jett says.

"The stresses are not near like you'd get in the field," David explains. Nutrients, temperature, and water supply are easier to control. The Reckamps use fertigation through drip tape. Weeds are controlled with black plastic or other mulch, which also controls the soil temperature and retains moisture.

Jett says high tunnels are particularly well-suited for vertical crops, because growers can raise a higher number of plants per square foot.

The Reckamps now grow a long list of crops that includes strawberries, 12 varieties of tomatoes, okra, green beans, peas, eight types of peppers, three types of Irish potatoes, asparagus, cantaloupe, broccoli, and sweet corn.

"Quality and taste kind of fall off after October," David says. They plant cool-season crops in the tunnels in the fall, but the bulk of planting is in March and early April.

High tunnels at the Bradford Research Center were built with polyethylene, pressure-treated lumber, and PVC pipe. The plastic covers are anchored with 2x4s. The sidewalls roll for ventilation. Mesh keeps pests away and blocks wind.

The water level was an issue for the Reckamps early on. Flooding led them to build up the soil level inside their high tunnels. Now there is a 6-inch step up from the ground outside.

Getting plastic covers onto the hoops also was a challenge. "Don't do this on a windy day," Marylin says. She offers a tip: "Roll tennis balls into the plastic about every 6 feet, tie cords around them, and throw the balls over."

Typically, the plastic covers on the structures last four to six years before they need replacement. The frames will hold up for about 12 years, Jett says.

Jett's advice to farmers who might be thinking of building high tunnels is to keep them simple and cheap, and to use the natural resources (wind, water, shade, windbreaks) as much as possible.

He cautions against making the structures too small or too large. "Wider than 30 feet is hard for tomatoes because you need wind for pollination. Also, pockets of high temperatures and high humidity lead to disease," he says. Build too small and temperature fluctuations could be a problem.

In his studies at the Bradford Research and Extension Center at University of Missouri-Columbia, Jett has found that the optimal size for the buildings is 20-30 feet wide by 100 feet long by 9-14 feet tall.

Hightunnels.org. This Web site offers detailed information about high tunnels with advice about costs, materials, and site selection. It also lists sources for materials and kits. The site includes information from researchers at University of Missouri, Kansas State University, and University of Nebraska Extension. The universities cooperate on high tunnel research that looks at profitable production systems for horticultural crops including strawberries, tomatoes, and flowers.

Plasticulture.org. The American Society of Plasticulture offers a helpful glossary of terms to do with plastic-based agriculture practices, plus information about mulching, row covers, high tunnels, and more.

Penn State University's Center for Plasticulture. Advice about plasticulture and high tunnels, including a how-to for designing and building your own, is available at http://plasticulture.cas.psu.edu

David and Marylin Reckamp, confinement hog producers from Missouri, have diversified into vegetables and small fruits. High tunnels extend their growing season and help them capture an early market for their produce.

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