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A Recipe For Change: High Tunnel Production

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Suzanne O’Connell’s interest in high tunnel production can be traced back to her beginning as a Master’s student at North Carolina State University where she studied the nutrient uptake of heirloom tomatoes in organic production systems. She went on to study cover crops with a focus on nutrient release patterns for her PhD.
O’Connell is an Assistant Professor of Sustainable Agriculture in the Dept. of Horticulture at the University of Georgia, and the first hire there to focus research and teaching on organic production. Georgia Organics was influential in securing research funding for the first three years of this position. Her main areas of interest lie in sustainable and organic production, cover cropping, soil management, and high tunnel systems of production.
O’Connell will be moderating the High Tunnel Production educational session at the 18th Annual Georgia Organics Conference, Recipe for Change: Better Farms, Better Flavors, which will be held on Feb. 20-21, 2015, at the Classic Center in Athens, Ga. High tunnels, also known as low-cost greenhouses, are freestanding covered structures without heat or power that use passive ventilation for cooling and an irrigation system for crop production. We talked to O’Connell about how she became interested in high tunnels, and why they’re so effective.

How did you become interested in high tunnel production?
I was introduced to high tunnel systems while working on my Master’s degree at North Carolina State University. Our research compared organic tomato production in the field and under high tunnels and worked with a farmers using high tunnels for diverse vegetable and cut flower production. I had worked on commercial field and greenhouse operations, but I really love working and learning about these hybrid greenhouse-field systems.

What is unique about high tunnel production?
One of the most effective tools that organic growers have is the use of cultural management techniques (i.e., non-chemical strategies); high tunnel are a great example of this! They provide a way to have more control over the micro-environment including temperature, rain, wind, etc. I think high tunnels have a lot of utility in both rural and urban settings because they concentrate growing efforts into small areas.

How can growers benefit from using high tunnel production?
Many growers find that high tunnels can improve crop quality and provide season extension opportunities which helps farmers capture and retain customers. Also, they are pleasant to work in when there is adverse weather outside.

Are high tunnels hard to construct or maintain?
Most farmers are good at construction and don’t talk too much about having problems building their high tunnels. Many companies will build their high tunnels for an additional fee. There are some good videos and photo journals online about the construction process. Sometimes site preparation and attention to issues such as leveling a field and drainage away from the tunnels are overlooked, although they are a very critical part of the construction process.

Is there an economic long-term benefit to using high tunnels?
There is a lot of variability in the literature on the amount of time to recover the initial investment. A lot will depend on the crops grown, one’s market, the grower’s skill level, and how these change over time. High tunnels require a fair amount of daily management and are different than any other type of production system so there does seem to be a learning curve and experimentation over the first couple of seasons that usually results in greater profitability over time.

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