High tunnels are used worldwide to protect crop quality under adverse weather conditions and to extend the production season of crops through climate enhancement (Lamont, 2009; Zhao and Carey, 2009). Temperature modification under high tunnels can lengthen the growing season from 1 to 4 weeks in the spring, and 2 to 8 weeks in the autumn (Wells and Loy, 1993). High tunnels are generally considered to be temporary structures covered with greenhouse-grade plastic, have no electrical system, and crops in them are planted directly into the soil (Wells and Loy, 1993). The range in engineering strength and durability of high tunnel technology generally corresponds to the range of purchase price (Giacomelli, 2009). The recent focus on locally grown food combined with low-cost tunnel technology has stimulated interest in crop-specific information relative to high tunnels among specialty crop growers (Reeve and Drost, 2012).
High-value crops including leafy greens, tomato, pepper (Capsicum annuum), small fruit, tree fruit, and ornamentals are commonly produced in high tunnels in the United States (Carey et al., 2009). Lettuce (head, leaf, and romaine types combined) ranked first in the United States in total value of production of fresh market vegetables (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012) and national consumption exceeded 23 lb per capita each year on average between 1980 and 2010 [U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 2012]. Lettuce production peaked in Washington in 1990 with 1700 acres, but by 1999 dropped to 800 acres, and has not been tracked thereafter (USDA, 2011). Washington farmers mostly lost market contracts to farmers in California who can supply large quantities of lettuce year-round (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012).
The optimal temperature for lettuce production is 65 °F (Maynard and Hochmuth, 1997), making this crop well suited for year-round production in regions with mild temperatures such as western Washington (Dufault et al., 2006). Lettuce generally benefits most from high tunnel production during fall, winter, and spring seasons, and is not normally grown in high tunnels during the summer because long daylength and elevated temperatures promote bolting, which reduces lettuce quality and marketability (Mishagi et al., 1992; Wien, 1997). In regions such as western Washington, heavy rainfall in the spring can constrain land preparation for crop establishment, and can negatively impact crop quality (Wallace et al., 2012).
In regions with a moderate climate such as the Pacific northwestern United States, production of warm-season crops such as tomato is limited (Miles et al., 2012; Rader and Karlsson, 2006; Waterer, 2003). In 2007, there were 300 acres of tomatoes produced by 409 farms in Washington, with a total estimated value of $1 million to $1.2 million (USDA, 2010; Washington State Commission on Pesticide Registration, 2010). Tomato production occurs on small acreages in essentially every county in Washington, and is predominantly for fresh market. While tomato is a minor crop in terms of overall production and value in Washington, it is considered an essential produce item at every farmers market, community supported agriculture farm, and other direct or local marketing outlet. Tomato benefits from high tunnel production in spring, summer, and fall months in western Washington. In a study by Miles et al. (2012), it was possible to plant tomato 1 to 2 months earlier in the spring in high tunnels than in the open field; during the summer months, plant growth was faster because of elevated temperatures and tomato was ready for harvest earlier; and in the fall, the crop was protected from rainfall and light frost, enabling harvest through October.
Although lettuce and tomato are both grown in high tunnels in western Washington, high tunnel production of both crops is currently low, and was estimated by the authors to be 50 acres for tomato and less than 20 acres for lettuce (Galinato et al., 2012a, 2012b). The adoption rate for high tunnels is low in the region primarily due to a general lack of knowledge about the specific production practices for each crop, the high tunnel structures best suited to each crop, potential returns from high tunnels, and the capital investment needed to initiate and maintain high tunnel production (Miles et al., 2009). In addition, some experienced high tunnel growers in the region claimed that the following factors serve as barriers to more widespread adoption of high tunnels in northwest Washington: high cost of tunnel production in terms of capital investment, time, and effort; lack of experience with tunnel set up and management; lack of horticultural experience with crops requiring high labor input; low knowledge base to manage tunnel operation, maintenance, and repairs; and lack of understanding of the optimal planting dates and varieties for production (M. Finger, personal communication; D. Hedlin and K. Ottenson, personal communication; A. Schwartz, personal communication; T. Thornton, personal communication).
While high tunnels provide growers with the potential to increase production, quality, and sales, little is known about the economic profitability of using these structures. Some studies have looked at the economics of high tunnel crop production (Conner et al., 2010; Jett, 2011; Waldman et al., 2012; Waterer, 2003; Wien et al., 2010) but none except Rodriguez et al. (2012) have directly examined the profitability of crop production in a high tunnel system as compared with an open-field system. Single crop enterprise budgets have been developed for both field and high tunnel production of lettuce and tomato in western Washington (Galinato and Miles, 2012; Galinato et al., 2012a, 2012b, 2012c). The objectives of this study were to 1) compare the economic potential of growing lettuce and tomato in high tunnel and open-field production systems and 2) identify the main factors that affect the profitability of each crop within each production system.
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