AMES, Iowa – With this spring’s wet soils and cool, cloudy weather, many gardeners only recently planted their vegetable gardens, so they may be skeptical at the produce already available at farmers’ markets. Besides the cool season crops, like lettuce, green onions, peas and radishes, some farmers may have ripe tomatoes, cucumbers and green beans for sale. How can this be?
These farmers may be using high tunnels that allow them to plant earlier and have vegetables a few to several weeks sooner than field-grown crops, says Linda Naeve, a value added agriculture specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.
As the demand for local fruits and vegetables increases, local growers are looking for ways to increase production and efficiency while extending the season — to have produce ready for sale both earlier and later in the season. High tunnels are one way to do that, Naeve said.
A high tunnel is a simple, plastic-covered, greenhouse-like structure to grow crops, Naeve explained. The crops are planted directly in the soil and the environment is typically passively heated and cooled by raising and lowering the sides and opening the ends. The warmer air and soil environment of high tunnels enables Iowa growers to plant cool-season crops in February and March and warm season crops in mid-April. It is estimated that nearly 300 high tunnels have been constructed around the state in the past three years.
High tunnel production often results in greater yields of high quality produce, Naeve said. Almost any crop can be grown in a high tunnel; however, because it is a premium growing area, fruit and vegetables that are typically grown in high tunnels include tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, cucumbers and raspberries.
Nicole Jonas, owner of Red Granite Farm located north of Ames in Boone County, is one such producer with a high tunnel. “After doing a lot of research and attending educational workshops on high tunnel production, we realized it was the way to go to maximize production and profitability,” said Jonas. “Being the first one to the market with red, ripe tomatoes brings a higher price because everyone is craving garden-fresh tomatoes.”
Jonas also reminds people that most high tunnel tomatoes are grown directly in the soil and have the great, home-grown flavor that people expect from tomatoes sold at the farmers’ market. The beauty of the farmers’ market is that consumers can talk to the farmers who grew the crops to get the “scoop” on their production methods.
For more information on high tunnels, visit the ISU Value Added Agriculture website, http://www.extension.iastate.edu/valueaddedag/high-tunnel-information. To find a local farm or farmers’ market, visit http://www.visitiowafarms.org/.
[PHOTO] Nicole Jonas in her high tunnel