By: Melissa Beck - @agnewsfeed
Have you ever eaten local, fresh strawberries in December? I have. They were raised in a local high-tunnel house. High-tunnel houses can make extra money for farmers market growers wanting to capitalize on the growing consumer desire for fresh, local produce.
High-tunnel houses, also called ‘hoop houses’, are a means for farmers to extend the growing season by trapping solar energy. They are simple structures that resemble greenhouses, built over bare ground and usually large enough for small tractors to drive through. The biggest difference between high-tunnel houses and traditional greenhouses is that high tunnels don’t have a heating and cooling unit. High tunnels rely on solar energy for heat and ventilation for cooling.
The temperature in this tunnel was nearly 100 degrees on an early May morning
High tunnels are constructed from steel pipe frames with greenhouse-grade plastic stretched over top. They’re irrigated using drip systems, which provide options for fertilization, and pesticide application. The drip irrigation system can be set on a timer allowing farmers to provide consistent water to plants, which prevents the plants from ever becoming stressed, and in turn allows them to be more productive. The sides and ends have roll-up walls that allow for ventilation and temperature control.
The crops are grown on bare ground, containers or raised beds and can be mulched with landscape fabric, plastic or traditional organic mulches.
I visited three local high-tunnel houses to learn more about this technology.
The University of Arkansas, Southwest Research and Extension Center (SWREC) in Hope has three high tunnels. They’ve had them for six years and have had to rebuild them one time due to weather damage. The SWREC serves as an educational research and demonstration resource for farmers to see new technologies first-hand before they decide to implement them on their own farms.
Ripe blackberries the size of your palm in April
Strawberries on plastic ripe in November, earlier if you buy plants that have been chilled
Manuel and Tricia Salinas, of Salinas Farms near Hope, have one high-tunnel house. They have a large produce farm and market their produce at farmers markets in Hope, Nashville and Texarkana.
Manuel and Teresa Salinas, Salinas Farms
The Salinas’ grow other crops besides what is grown inside the high tunnel. They are known for their watermelons, tomatoes, peas, cantaloupe, broccoli, strawberries…well the list goes on and on. Manuel and Tricia also have cows and bee hives and sell local honey. They’re among the hardest working and kindest people you’ll ever meet.
Manuel Salinas explains how his drip irrigation system works
When Mike Chambless, of Prescott, first rolled open the end of his tunnel house and led us inside, the temperature was 96 degrees. I had to remove my jacket and my glasses fogged up. This was a cool morning early in May.
Mike Chambless opening his high-tunnel house
His tomato plants were taller than me. He uses an overhead pulley type system to stake the tomato plants and has both drip and overhead irrigation installed. Mike uses hay mulch instead of plastic. Mike has the mind of an engineer, evident in the way he designed things on his place.
Mike Chambless’ tour of the high tunnel
Mike makes his own manure tea and runs that through the drip irrigation system to fertilize his high tunnel plants. He uses a special recipe, a pump and aerator, taking this old school gardening technique to a more modern level.
U of A Extension Agent, Darren Neal, helping brew the manure tea
High-tunnel houses provide a cost-effective way for farmers to get a jump on consumer demand for fresh, local produce. They also allow for farmers to be creative and to grow higher-value crops such as berries. Support your local farmers by shopping at an Arkansas farmers market near you.