A research project is helping farmers extend their growing seasons and work with foods not usually grown in Iowa. Eldon Everhart is a horticulture field specialist with Iowa State University Extension. For five years now, he’s been experimenting with "high tunnels." They consist of a metal frame – around 100 feet long and 30 feet high. The roof and walls are made of plastic.
Unlike greenhouses, they’re not heated. But they do protect crops from frost, wind, and rain…allowing a farmer to plant earlier in the growing season. Everhart says, "That gives you an advantage in terms of being there to the market, with product to sell, before the glut comes and before other growers, that don’t have high tunnels, are there too."
Everhart says high tunnel owners are making some good money, selling fresh fruits and vegetables earlier than other producers. Everhart says the lack of competition allows high tunnel producers to sell at a higher price. Many times, they can maintain that price, because the customer is pleased with the product. Everhart says high tunnels are slowly popping up around rural Iowa.
"Just in southwest Iowa, in about a five to 10 county area, I know of at least six or seven producers that have high tunnels," Everhart says. "Most of them put up one to begin with, then the second year, another one. By the third year, they’ve got four or five." ISU Extension’s research involves high tunnels in Lewis, in southwest Iowa, and just north of Ames.
A typical high tunnel, with a simple drip irrigation system, can cost around $4,000. Everhart says Farm Tech, based in Dyersville, is one Iowa-based company selling pre-fabricated high tunnels. The tunnels are tall enough for farm equipment and Everhart says they’re excellent for tomatoes, peppers, various berries, and even peach trees.