Key Considerations When Growing Under Cover

Key Considerations When Growing Under Cover

So you want to grow vegetables in a greenhouse or high tunnel. You’ve heard the protected culture market is growing and would like to get in on the action. Where do you start?

For those producing vegetables in the field looking to add a greenhouse or a high tunnel, or for those in the floriculture industry who want to make the switch to vegetables, the biggest thing to consider before getting started is the market.

You need to know where you will sell your greenhouse or high tunnel tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, etc. — whether it is the grocery store, a restaurant,  farmers market, or CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program.

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Let Market Be The Driver

Roberta Cook

Roberta Cook

Gene Giacomelli

Gene Giacomelli

According to Roberta Cook, a marketing economist at the University of California-Davis, many times companies are motivated by production to get involved in protected agriculture.

“They’re being more production-driven than market-driven, which is typically something we see in agriculture,” she says.

She points out the market on the buy side is consolidated, with much of the retail consolidation taking place within the last 20 years. Buyers are interested in suppliers that have the volume to meet their needs, so Cook cautions growers just starting out that without a defined marketing scheme, they will not have access to the large buyers.

“The first thing I would recommend to anybody getting into a new crop regardless of the method of production is doing market research to understand where the market is, who the market is, and whether they have the wherewithal to service the market competitively,” she says.

In addition to the market, you have to look at efficiencies. Cook says an important question to ask is: Can I produce that volume more efficiently with at least part of that production in protected agriculture?

“If the answer is ‘yes,’ it may make sense for you,” she says. “[This is] as opposed to someone just coming in and saying, ‘OK, now I’m going to get into greenhouse vegetable production,’ and start a crop they haven’t worked with and don’t have established buyers.”

Those starting out in protected ag may opt to begin with a high tunnel instead of going right to a climate-controlled greenhouse. Photo credit: Bill Lamont

Those starting out in protected ag may opt to begin with a high tunnel instead of going right to a climate-controlled greenhouse. Photo credit: Bill Lamont, Penn State University

“Once you know what your environment is, you can look at what your cost is to grow, and then determine the price point for your product,” he says.

“As a field grower who has lost many crops over the years and wishing I had a greenhouse at the time, I like the predictability of a greenhouse,” Giacomelli says. “You have a lot more possibilities to save your crop and reach a market on a predicted date and to hit the high-price market by timing it.”

From Floriculture To Vegetables
Those possibilities remain for growers coming from the greenhouse floriculture market to vegetable production in a protected culture, except they are faced with a slightly different challenge. According to Giacomelli, these growers are using their traditional floriculture greenhouses and some have noted that vegetables demand more attention and environmental control than flowers.

Some floriculture growers are transitioning slowly to vegetables, and some may eventually leave the floriculture business to grow greenhouse vegetables, he says.

At the recent Cultivate conference (formerly known as OFA Short Course) in Columbus, OH, a strong push was being made to cover topics on greenhouse vegetable production.

High Tunnels To High Tech
For those already immersed in field vegetable production, you need to choose what type of structure to use, whether you are just getting involved or are planning an expansion. Those starting out in protected ag may opt to begin with a low-cost high tunnel instead of going right to a fully climate-controlled greenhouse.

Cook points out in the Midwest and Eastern U.S., smaller open-field growers of crops like tomatoes are beginning to transition part of their acreage to protected culture, such as high tunnels. These growers are making the move so they can begin production earlier in the season, have rain protection, less disease pressure, and, as a result, get better-looking tomatoes.

As high tunnel growers have been given an incentive through the recent Farm Bills and USDA Specialty Crops Research grants, this production practice has exploded over the last 15 years, Giacomelli says. Many growers are learning to produce more and better-quality products in high tunnels, and the tunnels are a good, low-cost way to extend your growing season, he adds.

The smaller growers have typically been the ones who use high tunnels, and as they see the advantage of protected culture, some are moving to greenhouses.

Giacomelli says he hopes those growing in high tunnels continue to evolve and the best growers will transition to a greenhouse — with heating, cooling, fertigation, which becomes a truly highly productive, year-round greenhouse.

“Only if you invest more, can you potentially produce more,” he says.

For those looking to become a dedicated greenhouse grower with a sizable amount of acreage, however, that’s more financially challenging. Constructing a high-tech greenhouse is typically accompanied by a $1 million-plus-per-acre price tag, Cook and Giacomelli say. With such high stakes, it is critical to know your market and whether that market can handle the volume you could produce before jumping in.