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High Tunnel Advantages

High tunnel construction (photo by Steve Williams)Portable high tunnels, or “hoop houses,” can help Pennsylvania farmers extend their growing season, expand crop variety, and increase yields—all while reducing pesticide use and retaining vital soil nutrients.

Plastic-covered, lightweight structures with metal or plastic ribs, high tunnels are easy to build, maintain, and relocate. “The newest thing we’re looking at is movable tunnels that ride on rails,” says Mike Orzolek, professor of vegetable crops and director of Penn State’s Center for Plasticulture.

For example, movable tunnels would provide first-frost protection for tender perennials, then moved down row for annuals like peppers, and then moved down again to grow greens into December. Although tunnels on rails cost double that of stationary tunnels, three crops—and three harvests—could recoup costs in a year and a half.

Produce grown in Penn State’s high tunnels is sold on the University Park campus at the Cellar Market, operated by horticulture department students and staff. “We like to try new things for consumers,” says Orzolek. Students learn what consumers prefer (red tomatoes) and what they don’t (purple cauliflower).

Federal funds are available for conversion to high-tunnel production for beginning growers or established growers who are moving toward high tunnels. For more info, contact a local Natural Resources Conservation Service office.