Big news. We’re planning on installing a high tunnel here on the farm soon!
This was a relatively sudden decision that we made but one, I think, that will really pay off in the long run. Because our ultimate goal is to be able to provide enough produce to sustain ourselves throughout the year (as well as to create new temporary livestock housing) I think a high tunnel really makes sense.
Hoop houses and high tunnels are essentially lightweight miniature greenhouses that are freestanding but do not have the glass that a greenhouse would. Instead, these structures are lined with heavy plastic which is draped over durable wire or plastic pipe. This helps retain heat, hold in moisture, and limit weather damage.
I’ve done a lot of research on the pros and cons of these structures, and what I’ve found is that they are really must-have items for small farms.
Here are the top reasons why you should install a high tunnel (or even a smaller hoop house!) on your farm.
This is the single most popular reason as to why people install high tunnels. You can start your plants during the early part of the season when they would ordinarily fail when planted in the unproteted ground. The high tunnel helps warm the earth within through the power of the sun, allowing you to extend the growing season into the fall and winter. Longer growing season=higher yields and more income.
You can get fresh vegetables later into the fall and earlier in the spring. Because the heat trapped inside the building warms the soil, it provides just enough to keep growth going. It also protects plants from early frosts or snow.
High tunnels also provide a great avenue for experimenting with different types of crops. If you have a plant that you want to try that might not necessarily be compatible with the soil or other growing conditions of your plot of land, a high tunnel gives you the perfect opportunity to try those plants out in a setting where you have more control over the conditions.
If you live in an area that experiences unpredictable weather, a high tunnel is a huge asset in protecting your plants. They can keep your plants guarded against heavy storms or high winds, and while they aren’t foolproof, they add a bit of extra insurance in times of need.
Plus, if you’re worried about pests, these structures virtually erase those concerns. They eliminate the need for pesticides and can even help support soil health, as you’ll have less runoff and need fewer fertilizers and other supplemental nutrients.
Even if you don’t end up using your high tunnel for larger crops, it can still be used to start seeds. This will allow you to get a jump start on planting, as you’ll be able to start seeds in a more spacious and well-lit environment than if you were trying to do so in your home on a windowsill.
Compared to greenhouses, high tunnels are super cheap. That was our major draw towards purchasing a high tunnel instead of a greenhouse. Even hobby greenhouses don’t come cheap, and we really wanted something that would allow us to use it for other purposes besides just growing plants.
A high tunnel protects the ground from rain, so although you will need to implement some kind of an irrigation system, this offers a significant advantage. If you’re worried about heavy spring rains flooding out your vulnerable seedlings, consider a high tunnel.
You’ll be able to choose exactly how much water your plants get. While there is some additional expense involved in installing irrigation fixtures, it’s definitely worth the extra hassle.
A high tunnel helps you work with any kind of conditions. If you have crummy soil that isn’t adapted to the kinds of plants you want to grow, no worries – you can try them out inside your high tunnel. You can even put a high tunnel over your raised beds!
Even if you overlook that fact, the high tunnel also provides flexibility in that you will be able to move the structure itself. Greenhouses are really challenging to move, and there’s no way you are going to move a permanent barn! A high tunnel can be moved to a new spot to start plants, or you can move it down a row to provide first-frost protection for vulnerable plants and then provide extra heat for warm-blooded plants like tomatoes. Your options are virtually endless, and you aren’t locked into anything.
High tunnels also offer a ton of space. Cold frames and polytunnels are frequently used instead of high tunnels, and if you don’t have a lot of acreage, those might be your best bet. High tunnels offer much more room than these structures, as well as more maneuvrability – you can’t walk into a cold frame, but you can walk inside a high tunnel.
Our biggest reason for investing in a high tunnel was to provide additional housing for our sheep. While we wouldn’t want to house or pigs or more destructive animals in a high tunnel, we’ve seen this done for sheep on other farms many times.
By lining the edges o the high tunnel with some kind of fencing or gate system, you can easily convert a high tunnel from a greenhouse into an animal barn between seasons. You’ll have maximum flexibility throughout the year and get more out of your dollar by erecting one of these structures.
Another benefit? In some areas, high tunnels are considered temporary structures and not permanent ones. This can save you some money when it comes to property taxes and building permit fees, because greenhouses are considered permanent structures that can cause your rates to hike.
What’s even better is that there are dozens of grants out there that can help support you in your quest to set up a high tunnel. The USDA, for example, offers the Environmental Quality Incentives Program which offers funding for high tunnels and other agricultural initiatives. There’s definitely some legwork involved in this, and while I haven’t had the time to pursue it much, you should absolutely consider it as a funding option for your farm if you are so motivated.
What other benefits of high tunnels, hoop houses, and yes, greenhouses, am I missing? Be sure to let me know in the comments, and subscribe to our email list for all the latest updates and discounts. Be sure to follow us on Instagram (@jrpiercefamilyfarm) and Pinterest (J&R Pierce Family Farm) for regular posts, too! And thanks for reading.