Hill Farm’s High Tunnels

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by Kurt Jacobson

In 2018, Hill Farm Vintage Vegetables prospered as thousands of other farmers lost most of their crops. The record rainfall that hit much of the mid-Atlantic didn’t adversely affect Scott and Susan Hill’s farm in Louisa, Virginia, thanks to their high tunnels. By cultivating in raised beds under protective high tunnels, Hill Farm grows crops year-round. It profits by supplying customers with early- and late-season crops, and it can survive excessive rain. While other farmers lost millions of dollars in drowned vegetables, the Hills were able to continue supplying produce to customers.

High tunnels, also known as “hoop houses,” are similar to greenhouses, except they aren’t heated. Like most modern greenhouses, high tunnels use a plastic covering to protect crops from excess rainfall while letting in sunshine. During winter, the Hills are also able to grow cool-weather crops, the envy of most vegetable farmers.

Many growing zones are suitable to high tunnels. Hill Farm is located in Zone 7b, but Susan told me she has friends farming under high tunnels in Maine. “If you choose your crops wisely, you can grow year-round in a wide range of growing zones,” Susan says. If your area receives significant snowfall, the “Gothic peak” design will shed snow efficiently. You can grow gorgeous greens all winter long.

An essential factor in determining whether your land is suitable for a high tunnel is finding a parcel that’s flat and easily accessible. Placing the high tunnels close to home, as the Hills have done, makes tending the crops easier. Good sun exposure is also essential, but some shade during the day is OK. For growing crops in winter, southern exposure is important for light and heat.

You’ll also need to consider a water source when siting your high tunnel. You’ll want an accessible source nearby for irrigating plants. The Hills use well water that’s distributed using Scott’s dual-watering system (Homestead Hacks, April/May 2018). High tunnel farming requires daily work, so if you can make watering less labor-intensive, that’ll save valuable time.

The cost of a high tunnel depends on several factors, including size, quality, and parts. The Hills use 48-by-24-foot tunnels, because they find this size easiest to work, and they’ve learned that it dissipates heat more effectively than a 100-foot-long tunnel. They opt for 6-mil-thick plastic covering, costing around $350, and have found that it lasts five years. Instead of the kit doors sold by most high tunnel manufacturers, Scott developed his own system. “I use a basic roll-up garage door for around $200 instead of the $600 kit door,” Scott says. “A standard boat winch used to roll up the sides for ventilation is linked to a brick for a counterweight.” These innovations are cost-efficient and easy to operate.

Hill Farm has four high tunnels, purchased from FarmTek for around $7,000 each. If you shop around, you’ll find it’s easy to spend significantly more. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service provides grant programs that can help defray the purchase cost. To qualify, applicants have to meet certain requirements, including growing crops in-ground or in raised beds, owning the land, and having grown on the farm previously, among other things.

Once you have your high tunnel design picked out, plan on needing a week or so to set it up yourself (with the help of friends and family), or pay to have it set up quickly. The Hills have set up their own high tunnels in the past, but with newer ones, they opted to pay for setup. Construction of their first high tunnel took four days with two workers, and then two days with three workers on the second high tunnel. If you can afford to pay a setup crew, that’ll free up time you can use to get your raised beds prepared for irrigation, and your beds ready for planting. If you pay to have the high tunnel set up, plan on it being done in 4 to 6 hours.

Airflow is vital for high tunnel farming. Hill Farm’s high tunnels have ventilation “windows” above the doors. Scott has made adjustments to this design for their growing zone. During hot summer days, the side ventilation isn’t enough to bleed off heat, necessitating the addition of windows above the doors on each end. In winter, these same above-door windows are closed off with PVC film, as the side ventilation is sufficient.

Susan Hill inside high tunnel

Once everything is set up and ready for crops, you’ll hopefully have researched what grows well and sells best. The Hills have grown early- and late-season berries, winter greens, veggies, flowers, and crops as unusual as papayas. Susan recommends carrots, lettuces, brassicas (particularly Asian cultivars), parsnips, turnips, and radishes; and in summer, tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, cucumbers, and herbs. “We’ve eliminated heirloom tomatoes in our tunnels,” she says. “Hybrids can take the heat!”

Hill Farm sells exclusively to its community-supported agriculture (CSA) program customers. You can sell to farmers markets, restaurants, a CSA, or even grocery stores. Thoughtful planning on what your customer base is and what they’ll want will increase your chances of success.

In 2018, Susan was named Virginia State University’s Andy Hankins Small Farmer of the Year out of 43,000 small farms! Scott and Susan welcome visitors to their farm to help aspiring market gardeners learn to be successful. If you can learn from farmers like the Hills, your chances of success will increase dramatically.

 Kurt Jacobson grows organic food in containers and raised beds, and he volunteers at Wilbur’s Farm in Kingsville, Maryland, to learn about organic gardening.

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