March 8, 2012 - People in Texas don't always know what to think about the plastic-covered "high tunnels" that Russ Wallace manages for Texas AgriLife Extension outside of Lubbock. Sometimes they ask him how his "wind tunnels" are doing. Others compliment him on his greenhouses.
"We get plenty of wind in Lubbock, but they are not wind tunnels," Wallace said. "They're not exactly greenhouses, either."
To the untrained eye, high tunnels, or hoop houses as they are sometimes called, look a lot like greenhouses. The fact that they are used to grow fruits and vegetables reinforces the notion, but high tunnels are not heated and don't have electricity or cement floors. The crops are planted directly into the soil or in raised beds. Growers can even drive a small tractor right inside.
Texans can be excused for not knowing what to call high tunnels. In a country that is tenth in the world in the number of high tunnels in use, Texas ranks near the bottom in the number of high tunnels being used in the United States. Wallace's work for Extension is part of a research and Extension project funded through a U.S. Department of Agriculture Specialty Crops Research Initiative grant. Similar work is also being conducted at Texas Tech, Washington State University, and Western Washington University along with private industries and regional growers.
Wallace, a vegetable and weed specialist with Extension, is from upstate New York and never suspected that his dream job would be on the arid and windy South Plains of Texas. The wind is a constant fact of life on the South Plains, and the cost and amount of work required to maintain a productive high tunnel generally increases in relation to how much wind a tunnel has to endure. Since crops inside a high tunnel are not exposed to rain - unless the plastic tears, which is another issue completely - some kind of irrigation system is a must.
Much of the labor and cost comes from buying and assembling a hoop house. "It's important to have at least one person reading the directions," Wallace notes. Costs can vary from 25 cents per square foot to $300. In windy areas, the extra money is usually worth the cost because maintenance and repair costs will be lower with higher quality materials.
That was evident last year when Lubbock was hit by a massive dust storm that rose 1,800 feet in the air and was seven counties wide with sustained winds of more than 70 miles per hour. The plastic covering Wallace's hoop houses suffered a tear about 25 feet long.
"I was pretty impressed with that," Wallace said. "I wouldn't have been too surprised if had just blew away."
The benefits can be considerable. Wallace has found that the high tunnels extend the growing season, especially for farmers market growers. Strawberries in particular have done well in his high tunnels - 880 percent better. Berries were planted in the hoop houses during fall of last year and harvesting began Feb. 21. Strawberries planted in the field weren't harvested until April 5. One variety of strawberries, Festival, produced $2,650 in revenue per high compared to $262 for the same variety of berries grown in the field. Results with other varieties had similar results.
"In our area anyway, there's really no point in growing strawberries outside," Wallace said. "We spent a little over $8,000. Depending on the crop, you can pay it off in a year. But it is more labor intensive Be prepared to have an increased work load. The advantage is that your pants mature faster and produce more."
Greg Coley, a grower who also runs three farmers markets in Central Texas, said he is in the process of constructing a hoop house because more of his markets are now selling produce year-round.
"I'm looking at growing strawberries in them, and maybe some heirloom tomatoes," he said. "The idea is fairly new to a lot of growers here, but I think it can pay off if you grow the right things at the right time for your market."
High tunnels come withotherdrawbacks. Leaf and root diseases can flourish in the warm and protected environment, and insect pests are likely to show up earlier and stay longer than they do in the fields. Coley said he plans to combat that problem primarily with a rigorous rotation of crops hoop and with solarization, which essentially allows the heat to build up until it burns the pests.
Wallace said his original intent was to grow produce inside the high tunnels organically, but he has since used some chemicals to combat disease and pest problems. "With organics, the growth is so good that you get more diseases growing inside than out. We don't get a lot of weed pressure because it's dry except for where the plants are growing," he said.