The global production of specialty crops, such as high-value vegetables, has been transformed by the use of high tunnels to moderate extreme weather events and climate conditions, allow for extended growing seasons, and offer protection against some insects and pests (Lamont, 2009). These plastic-covered structures are built directly over the soil, and plants are typically grown directly in the soil. They are passively heated by solar energy, but they do not have fully automated venting, cooling, or heating systems, thereby providing many of the benefits of a greenhouse but at a much lower cost (Carey et al., 2009; Lamont, 2009). This technology became popular in many countries in the 1970s, and a 2009 survey of high tunnel use worldwide found that this technology was most widely used in China, where high tunnels covered 360,000 ha, followed by Spain with 55,000 ha and Japan with 52,500 ha (Lamont, 2009). At that time, high tunnels were only in use on 5000 ha in the United States (Lamont, 2009). However, high tunnels are increasingly being used for specialty crop production in the United States, partly because of a nationwide high tunnel support effort launched as a pilot program with the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2009 (Starmer, 2014; U.S. Department of Agriculture, n.d.). The pilot program was successful and established as the High Tunnel Initiative (HTI) through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) as part of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) (NRCS, 2015). This program supported the construction of more than 13,000 high tunnels on farms in all 50 United States (National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, 2014). Although not initiated in Indiana until 2012, the response was “overwhelming,” and 169 tunnels were constructed between 2012 and 2014 (A. Heichelbech, personal communication).
Research trials have shown great promise for high tunnels to make a pivotal difference in farmers’ abilities to increase their production by increasing crop yield and extending the growing season (Belasco et al., 2013; Conner et al., 2010; Orzolek, 2013). However, that promise depends, in part, on farmers’ success with integrating high tunnel production with their farms. Conner et al. (2010) and Waldman et al. (2012) reported that although high tunnel use offers potential benefits, it also requires specialized knowledge and experience for successful implementation. In their study of 12 beginning farmers in Michigan who adopted high tunnels, the researchers found mixed results in terms of success with increasing profitability and meeting management goals (Conner et al., 2010; Waldman et al., 2012). For instance, the income from the high tunnels increased initially, but it plummeted by the third year of the study due to cost and labor inefficiencies (Waldman et al., 2012). Overall, farmers’ success with generating income from their high tunnels was limited by management factors such as timing when to invest more labor and allocating more time and labor to managing the high tunnel (Waldman et al., 2012). Specifically, they found that the most profitable farmers invested their labor during the spring and fall months, rather than the summer months, and that keeping the high tunnel full was important for success (Waldman et al., 2012). The availability of off-season markets that support the season extension and year-round production is related to the timing of labor investment. The study performed in Michigan found that few areas had year-round markets, and those that did were not well-trafficked in the early spring and late fall, when it would be most profitable for farmers to produce crops in their high tunnels (Waldman et al., 2012). A survey of 81 growers using high tunnels in the U.S. Great Plains found that labor was the limiting factor for farmers who wished to increase their high tunnel production (Knewtson et al., 2010). Small but intensive studies like these create questions about how effectively specialty crop farmers are using high tunnels.
Previous studies identified a range of outcomes and the importance of labor as a limiting factor, but they did not elucidate the farmers’ experiences that led to their conclusions. There is a need for qualitative research focused on the human dimensions of high tunnel management because few studies have measured farmers’ perceptions of the factors that affect the outcomes and impacts of growing specialty crops in high tunnels. Understanding and addressing critical limiting factors are important to get the most out of public and private investments in high tunnel technology. In a recent survey of farmers using high tunnels in Indiana, it was reported that this technology increased the quality, yield, and shelf life of their specialty crops and improved the economic stability of the farms (Bruce et al., 2017). However, the survey did not provide detailed information about the constraints and benefits. Therefore, we conducted interviews with 20 farmers to gain a more in-depth understanding of farmers’ perceptions of the farm-level impacts of growing specialty crops in high tunnels and analyzed these interviews.
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