Extend the Season
In Nebraska, a fresh home grown tomato or any garden produce is hard to come by in the late fall months. After a hard freeze in Nebraska we can pretty much say farewell to fresh garden produce for the season. That was until several producers in the state invested in high tunnel hoop houses.
High tunnel hoop houses are unheated greenhouse-like structures where plants are grown directly in the ground. Greenhouse grade plastic is stretched over a hoop frame and serves as a barrier which shields plants from natural elements giving them two to six extra weeks of growing on each end of the season. Without an added source of heat, producers carefully choose plants to grow in the high tunnel. These structures make it possible to harvest produce early in the summer and late in the fall, giving producers a jump on revenue for the seasons. A handful of producers in the state of Nebraska have utilized this value added resource to create longer seasons.
Early last year the University of Nebraska Rural Initiative saw this as an economic opportunity for Nebraska growers to potentially gain higher revenue and to satisfy those fall-fresh produce cravings many of us are guilty of having. Partnering with the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture at UNL, funding was made available through University of Nebraska Rural Initiative and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to purchase the materials needed to build a high tunnel at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln West Central Research and Extension Center in North Platte. A 21 foot wide by 72 foot long, high style tunnel was purchased which features a gothic style frame, automated roll down sides, and double plastic layers.
The project, managed by Researcher and Extension Professor Dale Lindgren, was delayed because of windy conditions when it came to installing the plastic. “Wind is a major factor when it comes to installing the plastic cover,” comments Lingren. Installing the cover is easier on smaller high tunnels.
Tomatoes, peppers, asparagus, zinnias, and snapdragons were planted in the high tunnel in May, 2008. After the growing season appeared successful, late season plantings occurred in late June. Green beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers were among the vegetables chosen. Research is focusing on planting design and layout, variety selection, influence of the natural environment, extending the season, and economic benefit.
The new structure has proven to be of great interest to the public. This spring and summer several organized groups visited the West Central Research and Extension Center to catch a glimpse of the high tunnel. A wide range of visitors from youth on up to adults has brought over 580 people this year. Groups including Chamber of Commerce Ag Groups, local Community Leadership groups, Master Gardeners, Garden Clubs, high school and elementary youth field day participants and representatives of commercial agriculture groups and general public walk-ins have visited the site to tour and ask questions about the high tunnel. The tunnel has also served as an educational tool for college and high school biology classes. University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate student, Natalie Sukup developed an informational brochure which has been handed out to visiting groups to help answer questions and where to find more information about high tunnels.
This summer the high tunnel was featured in two local television segments. The high tunnel has created more than just local interest. Backyard Farmer, a Nebraska Public Television (NET Television) gardening program, featured Lindgren and the high tunnel reaching not only Nebraskans but worldwide viewers through online internet viewing.
Future plans for project research will focus primarily on quality selection in vegetables with cultivars of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and beans. Other important activities will include detailed data collection on temperature, production, and yield, controlling insects and disease organically, and evaluating woodchips as mulch. Some companion field gardens will be implemented to compare planting dates, yields, and produce quality. Additional sites across Nebraska will be evaluated to build added affordable high tunnel models more appealing to the Nebraska producer.
Public education is a primary goal for the Rural Initiative and University of Nebraska Extension. Sukup will be using the high tunnel research to develop curriculum for producers across the state. The curriculum will focus on aspects of a high tunnel system that ranges from selecting an appropriate site to marketing the products it produces. Other states including Iowa, Kansas and Kentucky have developed high tunnel programs that producers are finding successful in season extension and quality control. Some studies have been conducted at UNL prior to the addition of North Platte’s high tunnel. These studies, conducted by UNL faculty member Laurie Hodges, has focused on cut flower production in high tunnels and understanding the microclimate within them. She has also contributed to the hightunnels.org website, dedicated to providing high tunnel education to producers and educators across the Midwest.
The North Platte high tunnel is available for viewing at the UNL West Central Research and Extension Center by scheduling an appointment with Dale Lindgren from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information about high tunnels or visiting the West Central Research and Extension Center in North Platte, contact Dale Lindgren at 308-696-6706 or e-mail at [email protected]. To receive an informational brochure or to learn more about high tunnel resources contact Natalie Sukup at 402-472-1725 or e-mail at [email protected].