Low Tunnels, High Tunnels, Caterpillar Tunnels, Oh My!

Reader Contribution by Robert White
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Have you ever opened a bag of store-bought salad mix in the winter months and wondered where it came from or how long it would last or noticed a rotten piece here or there already? Wouldn’t it be nice to get some fresh, crisp, tasty greens in the winter? What would it take? Well, one of the means of increasing income, boosting yields, and securing income as a market gardener can be the use of some means of extending the growing season through plastic tunnels on the farm. These can be low to the ground, waist high or large structures that allow people and small farm equipment to easily move about within. Another term used for them is hoop houses.

One of the most famous users and promoters of this growing technique is Eliot Coleman, whose books about four-season gardening are available here on Mother Earth News’ site. Eliot did extensive research in Europe, where the earliest forms of this took place with the use of glass cloches. He brought back his research and began developing it use in the northeastern U.S. Recent issues of MEN have featured articles on building and using these structures as well.

Last week, I took advantage of an all-day workshop offered at the Great Plains Growers conference in St Joseph, MO. This was one of five all-day workshops offered along with two days of mini-sessions. There are lots of similar conferences all across the country this time of year.  Something definitely worth checking out. Seven speakers were featured at this particular workshop from experienced to novice tunnel users, a researcher and developer, an University Extension Specialist, a grad student sharing research, and an NCRS conservationist who spoke about a government backed funding source.

The information was almost overwhelming but the amazing thing is the amount of information sharing that there is in this growing (no pun intended) trend. It seems like there are so many options with styles of tunnels to techniques used within tunnels that everyone is in a constant state of learning and adapting. Some direct-seed into the soil, others start plants in a greenhouse and transplant. Some use moveable tunnels to start various seasonal crops in different plots throughout the year while others grow a single crop (spinach) or type of crops (various lettuces). They can even be used for flowers and small fruit bearing bushes and trees, and I’ve seen pictures of them used for chicken coops. A couple more things to factor in is growing zone and soil conditions. So you can see the versatility and also the challenge of incorporating a structure like this and a method like this into one’s garden toolbox.

A couple of take-homes for me is that I can use this technique to get some varieties started earlier than normal and be the first to market with that particular crop and hopefully lock in some business. Another idea to maintain the customer base you’ve built during the summer months is having product to offer year round when other gardeners have left the scene.

My dad has us on the list for funding through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) offered through the Nebraska Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). It’s a cost-share grant program that started two years ago and under the current plan, this is the last year. We should find out about the funding in early February. So we could be putting up one of these in some pretty frigid and unpredictable weather. It doesn’t appear to be a one-man operation, so hopefully we’ll be able to recruit some help from friends and family. As I’ve begun to share my vision with others of what I want to do, I’ve already had a couple of people offer to come help.

The next biggest challenge for me is coming up a growing plan to determine when to start various crops in the high tunnel. Lots of information and resources exist out there, but I’m sure I’ll be doing lots of experimenting and researching by trial and error myself.

Photo by blogger Ric Bohy, who writes about his experience building a hoop house here.