Tunnel Vision

08/01/2009 02:00:00 AM

Although some growers in north Florida rely on high tunnels, the number of hoops in that state is not as high as it is in some areas because of the short transition period from cold weather to hot and vice versa—the time when the tunnels would be most valuable—Hocmuth says.

Nevertheless, some Florida growers do produce early-season vegetables, such as tomatoes and bell peppers in hoops, he says. And, by using a combination of tunnels, greenhouses and shade houses, some have quadrupled their production, sometimes growing 12 months of the year.

Grower beware

There are some caveats to keep in mind before embarking on a tunnel program.

If you’re used to growing on a large scale, switching to tunnels requires a different mindset, Black says.

“This is intensively managing a small area to maximize what you can produce there,” he says.

Be sure you have adequate labor available and a marketing window for the crops you plan to produce.

“Don’t grow (in a tunnel) when you’re doing another labor-intensive crop or when you can’t capture demand for out-of-season produce,” Black advises.

Evans concurs. If the farm stand or farmers market where you typically sell your produce closes after Halloween, you may not have an outlet for your product.

There’s plenty of room for growers during the “shoulder seasons,” he says. And a tunnel program can be very rewarding because you can produce a quality crop, and you’re not overwhelmed by a large expanse of land. On the other hand, don’t plan to take off holidays or weekends.

Unlike open fields, a tunnel needs to be checked every day, Evans says. “It’s not for everyone.”

TUNNELS ON THE MOVE

Photo by Ed Page, Colorado State University

Ed Page’s movable tunnel costs $4.50 per square foot if used over one plot but only $1.25 since he uses it over four or five.

Ed Page has taken the high-tunnel concept to the next level.

Growers already have found that they often can extend their growing season and increase their profits by growing inside plastic hoops or tunnels. Page, a Montrose-based Colorado State University small-acreage management agent, has been able to reduce expenses by building a tunnel on rails so it can slide from one location to another and handle a larger selection of crops.



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