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  • Author or Editor: Edward E. Carey x
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Growers have indicated that changes in soil quality under production in high tunnels is an important problem, but these have not yet been quantified or critically assessed in the central Great Plains of the United States. We conducted surveys of grower perceptions of soil quality in their tunnels (n = 81) and compared selected soil quality indicators (salinity and particulate organic matter carbon) under high tunnels of varying ages with those of adjacent fields at sites in Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Iowa in the United States. Fourteen percent of growers surveyed considered soil quality to be a problem in their high tunnels, and there were significant correlations between grower perceptions of soil quality problems and reported observations of clod formation and surface crusting and to a lesser extent surface mineral deposition. Grower perception of soil quality and grower observation of soil characteristics were not related to high tunnel age. Soil surface salinity was elevated in some high tunnels compared with adjacent fields but was not related to time under the high tunnel. In the soil upper 5 cm, salinity in fields did not exceed 2 dS·m−1 and was less than 2 dS·m−1 under 74% of high tunnels and less than 4 dS·m−1 in 97% of high tunnels. The particulate organic matter carbon fraction was higher in high tunnels than adjacent fields at 73% of locations sampled. Particulate organic matter carbon measured 0.11 to 0.67 g particulate organic matter per g of the total carbon under high tunnels sampled. Particulate organic matter carbon in the soil was also not correlated to age of high tunnel. Soil quality as measured in this study was not negatively impacted by use of high tunnel structures over time.

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The sustainability of soil quality under high tunnels will influence management of high tunnels currently in use and grower decisions regarding design and management of new high tunnels to be constructed. Soil quality was quantified using measures of soil pH, salinity, total carbon, and particulate organic matter (POM) carbon in a silt loam soil that had been in vegetable production under high tunnels at the research station in Olathe, KS, for eight years. Soil under high tunnels was compared with that in adjacent fields in both a conventional and an organic management system. The eight-year presence of high tunnels under the conventional management system resulted in increased soil pH and salinity but did not affect soil carbon. In the organic management system, high tunnels did not affect soil pH, increased soil salinity, and influenced soil carbon (C) pools with an increase in POM carbon. The increases in soil salinity were not enough to be detrimental to crops. These results indicate that soil quality was not adversely affected by eight years under stationary high tunnels managed with conventionally or organically produced vegetable crops.

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High tunnels are becoming an increasingly important production tool for vegetable, small fruit, and cut flower growers in many parts of the United States. They provide a protected environment relative to the open field, allowing for earlier or later production of many crops, and they typically improve yield and quality as well as disease and pest management. Producers, ranging from small-scale market gardens to larger scale farms, are using high tunnels of various forms to produce for early markets, schedule production through extended seasons, grow specialty crops that require some environmental modification, and capture premium prices. The rapid ongoing adoption of high tunnels has resulted in numerous grower innovations and increased university research and extension programming to serve grower needs. An informal survey of extension specialists was conducted in 2007 to estimate numbers (area) of high tunnels and crops being grown in them by state, and to identify current research and extension efforts. Results of this survey provide an indication of the increasing importance of these structures for horticultural crop production across the country.

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