The demand for heirloom tomato varieties has increased consistently over the last couple of decades, driven by sprouting farmers markets, growing interest in organic produce, and local food movements. Heirloom varieties are valued for their improved flavor, diverse colors and shapes, as well as their legacies (Jordan, 2007). Heirloom tomato varieties are typically open pollinated, and many were released more than 50 years ago (DeMuth, 1998).
Heirloom tomato varieties are often chosen by small-acreage growers who cater to local specialty markets because of the limited shipping potential due to thin skins and lack of shape/size uniformity (Grassbaugh et al., 1999; Lin et al., 2008). The selling price of heirloom tomatoes in specialty markets can be as high as $7/lb (Jordan, 2007), and organic produce can garner additional price premiums (Stevens-Garmon et al., 2007). However, production of these varieties is difficult. In the southeastern United States, heirloom tomato production is especially challenging because of severe disease pressure as many heirloom varieties do not have disease resistance deployed in modern hybrid tomato varieties. Many foliar diseases of tomato are also favored by the frequent rain events characteristic for this region, and these diseases can be particularly severe on heirloom varieties that not only lack resistance, but also require a longer growing season. Organic production of heirloom tomato varieties is especially challenging as host resistance is a crucial asset of an integrated pest management program (Chellemi, 2002).
High tunnels, also known as hoop houses, are relatively simple polyethylene-covered structures generally without electricity, powered heating, or ventilation systems (University of Kentucky, 2008; Wells and Loy, 1993). High tunnels are often used to modify the microclimate to extend the growing season in cooler climates (Lamont et al., 2003) and to protect crops from excessive precipitation in warmer climates. They potentially also offer protection from some insect, disease, wind, and wildlife (Arya et al., 2000; Blomgren and Frisch, 2007; Bomford et al., 2007; Carey et al., 2009; Conner et al., 2010; Demchak, 2009; Knewtson et al., 2010); reduction in pesticide use (Arya et al., 2000); and improvement in labor efficiency (Blomgren and Frisch, 2007; Everhart et al., 2010). High tunnels are used extensively for the production of high-value produce in Europe, Asia, Northern Africa, and the Middle East (Everhart et al., 2010; Knewtson et al., 2010; Lamont, 2009; Waterer, 2003). In the United States, the use of high tunnels is still limited, but ongoing research indicates that these structures may be viable for high-value crops and particularly for tomato production (Carey et al., 2009; Knewtson et al., 2010; Waterer, 2003; Wells and Loy, 1993).
The economic viability of high tunnels relies on achieving improved productivity and quality of high-value crops in limited space and possibly capturing price premiums associated with an extended growing season (Waterer, 2003). High tunnels require additional capital investment (Wells and Loy, 1993), but these structures are durable and typically last over multiple growing seasons. Higher yields, reduced risk of crop failure, and an extended harvest season associated with high tunnel production may improve overall profitability to the grower (Waterer, 2003).
Studies looking at the profitability of high tunnel production show that it varies by location and crop. For example, Waterer (2003) found that high tunnels consistently produced higher gross returns per unit of row length compared with traditional low-tunnel production systems for several high-value vegetable crops in Saskatchewan, Canada, but the study concluded it would take several growing seasons before the increase in gross returns would cover additional capital costs associated with high tunnel construction. Conner et al. (2010) conducted a multiyear investigation into the economic impacts of year-round production of various crops in high tunnels based on nine case studies from Michigan. They found a broad range of outcomes in construction time, labor requirements, and revenue but concluded that high tunnels could be profitable in Michigan after an average payback time of 4.2 years. Cheng and Uva (2008) conducted cost and price analysis of high tunnel production of tomatoes and some other crops in New York. When the fixed costs associated with high tunnel construction were factored in, economic returns varied for different crops and scenarios but, in general, tomatoes grown in high tunnels resulted in positive net returns. Heidenreich et al. (2012) conducted cost, revenue, and annual cash flow analyses for high tunnel raspberry (Rubus idaeus) and blackberry (R. fruticosus) production finding that the structures would pay for themselves in the third year of operation after which a positive cash flow would be generated. Rodriguez et al. (2012) used simulation techniques to compare the present value probabilities of being able to recover the total costs for open-field and high tunnel production of blackberry in Arkansas. They found that gross returns were higher in the high tunnel system, but the present-value distributions of the gross returns did not offset the high tunnel total costs in half of the simulations. They concluded that field production of blackberry was more profitable. Blomgren and Frisch (2007) analyzed several case studies that involved the use of high tunnels and estimated that high tunnel production could be profitable for tomatoes and few other crops. Finally, Everhart et al. (2010) found that economic viability of high tunnels varied by crop with tomatoes, raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries (Fragaria ×ananassa) being the most profitable in high tunnel production systems in Iowa.
In 2007 and 2008, a comparison of high tunnel vs. open-field organic heirloom tomato production systems was conducted through an interdisciplinary collaborative effort at the CEFS located in Goldsboro, NC. Production-related findings of this experiment were documented by O’Connell et al. (2012). The study indicated that with proper management techniques, high tunnels could optimize yields, increase fruit quality, and provide season extension opportunities for organic heirloom tomatoes relative to field production in the region. The objective of this report was to assess the economics of high tunnel production of organic heirloom tomatoes and to determine how the selling price of fruit affects the time required to pay for the construction and use of these structures. This study was specifically devised to determine if high tunnel production is an economically viable system for small-acreage organic heirloom tomato growers in climate conditions similar to eastern North Carolina. We assessed high tunnel construction costs, annual production costs, yields, and revenues, and investigated issues such as potential increases in production versatility, improved protection from weather extremes, and reduced risk of crop failure using standard open-field production as a basis for comparison.
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