High tunnels are a low-cost technology that can strengthen local and regional food systems by facilitating the production of high-quality fruits and vegetables during the growing season and extend production during the cool/cold or rainy seasons of the year. A high tunnel is a plastic-covered structure for growing plants that is typically constructed directly over the soil, heated by passive solar energy and distinct from a low tunnel (a small structure that covers a single bed or row) or a heated greenhouse (Janke et al., 2017). High tunnels provide a protected environment for plants, shielding them from adverse weather, buffering low temperatures, and reducing certain diseases and pests (Lamont, 2009). High tunnels have been shown to help farmers extend the growing season and increase the yield and shelf life, and improve the quality of their crops (Belasco et al., 2013; Bruce et al., 2017; 2019a; O’Connell et al., 2012), and more farms are growing crops under cover. The number of U.S. farm operations growing under cover tripled between 1998 and 2019, as did the area grown under cover and the value of sales from these crops [U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2021].
High tunnels are popular among small-scale, diversified farms that market their products directly to consumers, likely because the capacity to offer fresh produce more consistently throughout the year assists them in developing their customer base (Ahearn and Newton, 2009; Carey et al., 2009; Foust-Meyer and O’Rourke, 2015). High tunnels also help farmers increase their income by offering out-of-season, local produce that generates a premium price (Carey et al., 2009; Conner et al., 2010). Therefore, high tunnel technology has received attention for its potential to support the viability of direct market farms and increase the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables, both of which are needed for building robust local and regional food systems (Colasanti and Hamm, 2010; Conner et al., 2009; Mount, 2012). Because of their potential for enhancing specialty crop production, building high tunnel capacity can assist both farmers in capturing greater market share and consumers in accessing fresh, locally grown products over an extended period, potentially year-round.
Despite potential benefits, high tunnel production requires specialized knowledge and experience for successful implementation (Conner et al., 2010; Janke et al., 2017; Waldman et al., 2012), and could potentially be challenging to integrate with existing crop production systems. Growing specialty crops in a high tunnel is similar to growing them in the field, but there are enough substantial differences that one cannot use exactly the same methods in a high tunnel environment (Conner and Demchak, 2018). Previous studies have surveyed farmers about the management practices they use in their high tunnels (Knewtson et al., 2010), and explored the profitability of high tunnels (Galinato and Miles, 2013; Sydorovych et al., 2013; Vescera and Brown, 2016; Waldman et al., 2012). These studies have pointed to labor-related issues as barriers to increased high tunnel production and maximizing profit potential for farmers (Conner and Demchak, 2018; Conner et al., 2010; Knewtson et al., 2010). In addition, researchers identified management practices related to the timing of farmers’ labor investment in high tunnels relative to the growing season and local markets as issues that warrant further research (Waldman et al., 2012). Other studies have identified long-term soil fertility and higher input costs as important challenges that affect high tunnel profitability (Fitzgerald and Hutton, 2012; Knewtson et al., 2012; Rudisill et al., 2015). The findings from these previous studies point to the need for qualitative research focused on better understanding the challenges that constrain farmers’ effective management of high tunnels.
Research-based knowledge about the human dimensions of high tunnel adoption is limited. We are not aware of any studies that have examined how farm-level characteristics affect high tunnel management and profitability. Furthermore, there are no studies that consider the approaches farmers are taking to integrate high tunnels into their farm businesses. This study was designed to understand the farm characteristics, contextual conditions, and management approaches that make it more likely a particular high tunnel enterprise will be successful. The research question was: How do farm characteristics affect outcomes of growing specialty crops in high tunnels?
Many areas of agricultural scholarship have explored the relationship between farm characteristics and a variety of outcomes, such as farmers’ success with new technology, innovations, and practices (Barnes et al., 2011; Emtage et al., 2007; Whatmore, 1994). Research studies have emphasized the importance of farm characteristics for farmers’ success with a range of diversification strategies, as well as how farmers’ approach to diversification varies by internal farm attributes (Carter, 2001; McElwee and Bosworth, 2010; Valliant et al., 2017).
Rural sociological literature distinguishes farms based on their marketing strategies, farm size, and scale, and makes a distinction between full and side enterprise farmers (Heimlich and Brooks, 1989; Inwood and Sharp, 2012). For instance, in a study conducted in the neighboring state of Ohio, researchers identified the following three types of farms: 1) alternative enterprises: small in size with high-value outputs, 2) recreational enterprises: very small scale, operated by hobby farmers, and 3) traditional enterprises: larger operations engaged in conventional commodity production (Inwood and Sharp, 2012). This study informed our identification of three types of farms with distinct approaches to high tunnel management.
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