What Is a High Tunnel?
A high tunnel is an unheated, plastic-covered structure used to grow crops. High tunnels provide some protection from the environment - temperature, pests, and weather - compared to growing in an open field, but less than a heated greenhouse. Typically, seeds and transplants are grown in the soil directly, rather than in pots, flats, on benches or tables. There is no foundation or heating system in a high tunnel. Learn more:
Why Consider a High Tunnel?
For those in northern climates, a high tunnel can provide an extended growing season, allowing farmers to start tomatoes, cucumbers, or melons earlier in the season than other growers. You can have tomatoes several weeks earlier than most, allowing you to charge a premium for your produce at the farmers market.
Over the winter, you can produce salad greens well into December, even in northern climates (this depends on your local climate, but generally speaking this is true).
Basically, when you have a high tunnel, you have an extended opportunity to grow vegetables and generate more income for your small farm. Even if you're growing on the hobby farm level or homesteading for self-sufficiency, a high tunnel can be a worthwhile investment, allowing you to produce more of your own vegetables, and lowering or eliminating the need to can, preserve, and freeze vegetables for the winter.
Site Selection for Your High Tunnel
Before you get it, you will need to make sure you have a good site for your high tunnel. Your site will need:
- Fertile, well-drained soil
- Level ground
- Winter access
Markets for Your High Tunnel Produce
Below, I'll briefly discuss some considerations for where you might market the produce you'll grow in your high tunnel. Thinking about each of these markets is important when deciding whether a high tunnel is right for your small farm. Which of these markets do you plan to utilize? Which are available in your area?
Selling your produce at the farmers market is a major consideration for those thinking about investing in a high tunnel. If you are going to generate income with your farm, you will want to investigate selling at the farmers markets in your area. Some markets move indoors for winter, so you can continue to sell vegetables even once most other producers have stopped.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
Community supported agriculture (CSA) is a system where farmers and the community partner to support the farm. A community of supporters or shareholders purchase a "share" of the farm's production at the beginning of the season, before produce is grown. The farm invests that money in seeds, fertilizer, labor, and equipment maintenance to grow the supply of fresh vegetables, fruits, and other farm products that are then distributed, usually in weekly boxes, to shareholders throughout the season.
If you are operating a CSA, a high tunnel can help you by allowing you to offer a greater number of share weeks (and thus a higher cost per share). You could even break shares down by season, offering an early spring, spring, summer, fall and winter share (some producers offer root vegetables and value-added products like bread, chicken stock, and oils during this winter share, but a high tunnel could help you add salad greens to your share).
If you sell to restaurants, you can offer them something special - fresh, locally-grown produce early and late in the season - with a high tunnel. Restaurant chefs are often willing to pay top dollar for something they can't get elsewhere.