Purchasing a high tunnel can seem like a lofty investment, but with detailed planning and timely management your high tunnel can become the most profitable real estate on your farm.
As with any large investment for your farm, it is important that the investment pays for itself. With high tunnels, you can guarantee your tunnel is paying you back faster by focusing on these five ways to make more money with your high tunnel:
- Selecting crops that pay the rent
- Planting cut and come again crops
- Interplanting within your rows/beds
- Utilizing the high tunnel year-round
- Extending the length of your CSA/market/farm stand.
Let’s break each of these down and get those dollars rolling in.
1. Plant Crops That Make Money
High tunnels are protected growing spaces that allow you to control water, pests, sunlight, and temperature. Due to this level of control some crops perform significantly better in this protected space as compared to field plantings.
The best high tunnel crops share the following attributes:
- They maximize yields in less space
- They are adaptable to the higher temperatures and humidity that come with high tunnel production
- They are high value items in your market
According to High-Tunnels-and-Other-Season-Extension-Techniques.pdf (sare.org), crops such as tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, cucumbers, and baby greens do particularly well in protected agriculture, with 44% higher yields in bell peppers for example (Specialty Crops for High Tunnel Production in Texas (tamu.edu).
Profitable Summer / Warm Weather High Tunnel Crops
Taking the studies referenced above into account, the best warm weather high tunnel crops are:
- Bell Peppers
On a per square foot basis Tomatoes and Cucumbers provide a higher potential yield per square foot because they grow AND PRODUCE vertically.
Additionally tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and eggplants can be harvested for multiple months, and even harvested earlier and later into the season because they are protected from late and early frosts.
Profitable Winter / Cold Weather Crops
We have an entire post that focuses on the 9 most profitable winter high tunnel crops, but generally speaking the best cold weather high tunnel crops are:
- Salad greens
- Asian greens
The main attributes the cold-loving crops above share are their ability to manage high tunnel environments BUT also they can often be harvested for two or three cuttings. This means you will get multiple harvests from one planting, and thus you can maximize your $ / sq. ft. with lower labor inputs when planting greens in a high tunnel.
Crops to Keep Out of Your High Tunnel
The above mentioned crops are in contrast to some that don't perform as well in high tunnels. Sprawling and humidity-affected crops that have much lower yields per square foot should be avoided.
They perform poorly in high tunnels and should be avoided when trying to make more money out of your high tunnel.
Generally speaking, don't plant these sprawling crops in a high tunnel: winter squash, row crops like corn, and low value items such as storage cabbage. These are not ideal for high tunnel growth.
Every crop in your high tunnel hoop house should be performing at such a level that they are effectively paying for your structure over time.
Because your high tunnel is an investment, the goal should be to leverage crop production in that space to pay YOU back for your investment as fast as possible.
The square foot profitability from a 2007 publication from the University of Vermont indicated an average $4.68/sq ft when examining production across various farms in their protected agriculture structures (Intervale Community Farm (sare.org)).
With a yield per square ft. like this, a well designed high tunnel could completely pay for itself in just a year or two (depending on how it is set-up).
2. Plant Cut-and-Come-Again Crops
Cut and come again crops are those that can be harvested multiple times, and for some, a duration of several months. Crops such as these maximize the dollar per square foot earned in your high tunnel, reduce bed prep labor, and provide a level of predictability.
Some examples of cut and come again crops include greens such as:
- Leaf lettuces
- Some herbs
- Swiss chard
Most of these crops, if planted at the right time, can result in two to three cuttings in both spring and fall/winter.
3. Interplant High Tunnel Crops
Two is company, but three is a crowd-may not be the case inside your high tunnel.
Utilizing interplanting, or planting companion crops amongst one another in the same bed, can be another method to increase your square foot profitability.
When interplanting you must take into consideration the following:
- How two crops may interact in their root structures
- Their above-ground growth
- The nutrient needs of each
- Timing their growth and harvest
- Pest deterrence
Some plants such as deep rooted and long-standing, trellised, tomatoes go great with shallow rooted, quick harvested, and stand-alone lettuces. For this reason, Lettuce and Tomatoes are a fairly common interplanted high tunnel hoop house crop.
Another great example would be rows of carrots and baby beets planted underneath trellised cucumbers as they have different root structures, nutrient needs, and harvest times.
In contrast, peppers and mature kale would not do well interplanted as they have similar above-ground growth structures, and can mature at the same time, which would make harvesting difficult.
Always do your research to determine which crops are compatible with one another. And keep your market in mind to decide whether there will be people to buy the crops you interplant.
As with anything new to your farm, be willing to experiment with different crops in different seasons to determine what is most valuable for you in your high tunnel space and market.
4. Utilize the High Tunnel in Winter and Summer
Growing year-round doesn’t only mean crops, but other parts of your business too. This could include branching into:
- Wreath making
- Seedling production
- Flower drying
- Hosting a dinner
- Building chicken nesting boxes
- ...Whatever your market and heart desire.
For many, however, the most natural way to increase revenue throughout the year is maximizing high tunnel production for winter markets.
Utilizing high tunnels in conjunction with winter markets resulted in one study reporting that 80 of their growers increased their winter incomes by a range of $11,775-$23,113 per farm! Here is that study - check it out and see if you can apply their methods to your high tunnel production: Final Report for LNE10-297 – SARE Grant Management System
For crops production you must take timing and temperature management seriously. You should plant most cool-season crops for late fall and winter harvests in mid to late August or early September for the greatest yield potential.
This is necessary in order to capitalize on day lengths while you have them.
By planting this early they can reach maturity before cold and low light slow growth - source: Indiana High Tunnel Handbook - Purdue Extension
If you're plan is to grow tomatoes in the summer months and cut-and-come-again greens in the winter months, your high tunnel will need to include the ventilation needed to help production of each type of crop.
Row covering is aso a vital tool for the winter production aspect of high tunnel growing. These help provide a couple extra degrees of protection from the elements.
Know that some cold-loving crops can freeze completely and still be harvested BUT that you must let them thaw BEFORE you harvest. Otherwise you'll have some mushy veggies.
5. Extend your CSA with a High Tunnel
If you’re running a CSA at $25/week/share, adding another couple of weeks for a pick up can generate a SIZABLE increase in revenue.
Perhaps a Thanksgiving or Holiday option would be a good spot to start experimenting with extending your CSA program further into the colder months.
Leveraging field grown storage crops such as winter squash, potatoes, parsnips, carrots, onions and garlic and combining them with fresh root crops, salad mix, and spinach from your high tunnel would be a great strategy to get more weeks out of your CSA.
More weeks = more revenue.
Additionally, depending on your climate, you may even start a week or two early in the spring as well, with bouquets of early flowers, peas, overwintered root crops, and baby greens available for your first couple of CSA pick-ups.
If folks are already committing to a full season of produce, another week is often doable when using the square footage of your high tunnel hoop house.
Since some folks are not willing to embrace a full-season share, consider breaking it up into:
- Spring share segments
- Summer share segments
- Fall share segments, and
- Winter share segments
If your winter or early spring CSA "run" needs to be a shorter share option of just a couple of weeks... no problem. The idea is to generate additional income from your high tunnel investment.
This might be just what your customers are looking for, which will gain your farm some new customers.
Utilizing a high tunnel well can result in attending your local farm market for an additional 4-6 weeks/season, and keeping your farm stand stocked at critical holiday shopping times. This equals increased revenues and a fast "pay-back-period" for your high tunnel investment.
Make Plans To Maximize Your High Tunnel Space
By now I’m sure you’re eager to implement some of these income-generating strategies into your high tunnel. If you don't already own a high tunnel, hopefully this post has provided some optimism that the structure can pay for itself quickly.
If you don't have a high tunnel hoop house yet, or are wanting to add additional structures, there are many high tunnel size and configuration options for all growers.
Remember that careful crop selection, timely plantings, maximizing your growing area, weather management, and creative uses of your space can help create more revenue with your future or current high tunnel structure.
Keep experimenting and don’t hesitate to reach out to any of our knowledgeable staff at Tunnel Vision Hoops for information on ventilation, heating, or a complete package High Tunnel Hoop House.
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