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Matt Kleinhenz of Ohio State University spoke March 30 in Fargo at a regional conference on high tunnels.

High tunnels a tool with promise, potential

FARGO, N.D. — Matthew Kleinhenz stood in the front of the room, enthusiastically answering one question after another about the challenges of operating high tunnels: mice, insects and cold well water, among others.

"They're not imbued with special cosmic properties," Kleinhenz, Extension specialist in vegetable production systems at Ohio State University, said of high tunnels. "They're a tool, a tool you can use to reduce risk."

Kleinhenz was one of the speakers at a regional conference on high tunnels held March 30 at North Dakota State University in Fargo. South Dakota State University Extension and the South Dakota Specialty Producers co-sponsored the event, which covered agronomic and economic issues facing both new and experienced producers.

The conference drew 60 people, most of them from North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota and a few from Montana.

High tunnels are unheated plastic-covered structures — in contrast to greenhouses, which are heated — that extend the fall and spring growing season of vegetables, fruits and herbs. That's especially useful on the Northern Plains, given the region's relatively short growing season, and can help growers increase their profitability.

The longer growing season allows operators to increase their production, giving them more to sell at farmers markets, grocery stores, restaurants and school districts. The structures can pay for themselves in as little as two years, advocates say.

Though hard numbers are tough to come by, there's strong agreement among people familiar with high tunnels that the number of such structures is increasing rapidly nationwide, Kleinhenz said.

U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show that the number of high tunnels rose 8.5-fold between 2010 and 2018, though those numbers don't fully reflect all the high tunnels built in that period, he said.

Many factors influence whether producers get into, and stay in, high tunnel production, The list includes diversification, location, lifestyle, efficiency and, most importantly, risk reduction, he said.

"It's so important to reduce your level of risk," he said.

Some operators decide to modify their high tunnels by installing devices to monitor temperature, relative humidity, light levels and crop conditions, among other changes, Kleinhenz said.

Eric Hanson, a Michigan State University Extension specialist in berry production, also spoke at the Fargo conference. Though high tunnels have clear benefits, they also have drawbacks, including financial costs, management costs and a learning curve.

One example of that learning curve: The type of plastic used in high tunnels can affect both crops and insects inside them, Hanson said.

Among the other experienced operators at the Fargo conference was Tim Geinert, who has run Geinert Gardens near Nortonville, N.D., with his family since 2013.

High tunnels are useful and beneficial, but they also can require a great deal of work, especially when plants in them are growing rapidly, he said.

Anyone interested in getting into high tunnels needs to realize in advance that "you're going to need to be committed to this," Geinert said. "It's good work, work that we like, but it's still a lot of work."

Geinert advised would-be high tunnel operators to do plenty of research and make sure they will have an experienced operator to turn to when problems or questions arise.

Jen Skoog, who operates Family Roots Farm near Christine, N.D., is interested in getting into high tunnels and attended the Fargo conference to learn more about them.

"I think high tunnels are really an interesting opportunity, but there's a lot to learn,' she said.

Kleinhenz advised new or would-be high tunnel operators to seek out available resources, including making connections with an established operator.

Extension services in some states offer information on high tunnels. So does www.hightunnels.org.