NECC2103: High tunnel specialty crop production

(Multistate Research Coordinating Committee and Information Exchange Group)

Status: Active

NECC2103: High tunnel specialty crop production

Duration: 10/01/2021 to 09/30/2026

Administrative Advisor(s):

NIFA Reps:

Non-Technical Summary

Statement of Issues and Justification

High tunnels are portable, greenhouse-like structures with a single or double layer of plastic, with or without supplemental heat, power, or mechanical ventilation, with crops usually grown in-ground (Wells and Loy, 1993). High tunnels increase the length of the growing season, yield, fruit quality, and nutrient uptake efficiency, and provide some climactic control compared to field production (Reeve and Drost, 2012) at lower expense than heated greenhouses. High tunnel production became widespread in the 1990s, and has further increased dramatically in the past decade as federal conservation initiatives incentivized installation of new tunnels.

High tunnels are typically used to lengthen the growing season for warm-season crops such as tomato, eggplant, pepper and cucurbits (Carey et al., 2009; Fitzgerald and Hutton, 2012; Knewtson et al., 2010; Lamont, 2009; O’Connell et al., 2012). High tunnels also permit growers in colder climates to grow crops during times it would otherwise not be possible, and to grow perennial crops that otherwise could not be grown in the region, thereby increasing market opportunities (Fitzgerald and Hutton 2012, Sideman unpublished data).  Several studies have demonstrated yield and quality benefits conferred by high tunnels. In addition to increasing economic stability and earnings, farmers report better yields, easier disease and pest management, and an increased quality of life when using high tunnels on their farms (Bruce et al. 2017). 

Several regional surveys of high tunnel producers and extension professionals have identified benefits and advantages of using high tunnels, as well as challenges that define research and educational needs (Fitzgerald and Hutton 2012, Foust-Meyer and O-Rourke 2015, Bruce et al. 2017, Sideman et al. unpublished). The protected environment created by high tunnels not only alters crop growth as compared with open field conditions, but also alters soil moisture dynamics, nutrient mineralization and leaching, the environmental suitability for pest and disease development, and behavior of pathogens and both pest and non-pest organisms including pollinators. With their small area and high land value, high tunnel soils are often managed intensively, with heavy (and possibly excessive) inputs of fertilizer and other amendments. The many differences between high tunnel and open field production necessitate the use of crop varieties, entire production systems, and pest and disease management strategies unique to high tunnels. Management challenges also exist, such as increased labor and time requirements and increased complexity of high tunnel production (Bruce et al., 2017). Thus, several research and outreach priorities and challenges are specific to high tunnel systems. While there are certainly regional differences, many of the high priority challenges related to high tunnel production are common to producers across a wide geographic area. 

According to Lamont (2009), the U.S. had approximately 5,000 ha of high tunnels and greenhouses combined at that time. In 2010, the USDA-NRCS began to incentivize new high tunnel installations; 9,489 high tunnels (representing at least 176 ha) were added throughout the U.S. between Jan 2010 and Dec 2013 alone (Foust-Meyer and O-Rourke 2015). However, despite increasing prevalence of high tunnels, we don’t have accurate data about how many high tunnels are in operation throughout the U.S. or about their economic importance to small- and mid-sized farms. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) groups all protected cultivation (high-tech greenhouses and low-tech high tunnels) together.  Estimates obtained through an informal survey conducted by Carey et al (2009) were highly variable, and high tunnel definitions were not consistent.

It is clear that a wide range of research and extension activities related to high tunnel production are taking place across the U.S. However, due to the broad geographic dispersal of high tunnel research and extension personnel, a forum to promote coordination and collaboration is needed to support multi-state, multi-institutional, and cross-disciplinary approaches to solve common problems. The stakeholders of this coordinating committee include not only high tunnel producers and extension professionals, but also greenhouse manufacturers, researchers in a variety of disciplines, and aspiring producers.

Collaboration across states is needed to: 1) characterize the high tunnel ‘landscape’, e.g. to quantify high tunnel acreage and production systems, 2) research pests and diseases unique to high tunnel production systems, 3) determine adaptability of new cultivars to high tunnel production systems, 4) research strategies to optimize soil, nutrient, water, temperature and crop management in high tunnels, and 5) share research plans to avoid duplication and inefficient use of resources, and to foster multi-institutional and cross-disciplinary research.


  1. Share information regarding on-going and planned research and extension activities pertaining to high tunnel agriculture.
  2. Complement and strengthen existing research and educational partnerships between members focused on high tunnel agriculture.
  3. Plan rigorous and relevant research that will optimize soil, water, crop and pest management for high value crops in high tunnels.

Procedures and Activities

The Committee will:

  • Meet annually to discuss relevant high tunnel research and outreach efforts occurring in each state

  • Provide a venue for establishing cooperative research efforts and for sharing data and research results among participants on an ongoing basis

  • Establish subgroups to plan cooperative research projects and write multi-institional, multi-regional research grant proposals

  • Maintain a website with links to participating people and institutions

Expected Outcomes and Impacts

  • High Tunnel Information Exchange Comments: Members will cover a range of specialized disciplines, including plant physiology, pathology, entomology, ecology, horticultural crop production, soil science, agricultural engineering, economics, social sciences, etc. and will represent a broad geographical distribution. Through an annual meeting in a central location, members will share information about existing projects and activities.
  • Coordination of Activities Related to High Tunnel Research and Outreach Comments: Major concerns of high tunnel producers will be identified and discussed. Research and outreach needs will be prioritized, leading to efficient use of public funds for high-priority research, teaching and outreach programs.

Projected Participation

View Appendix E: Participation

Educational Plan


The recommended Standard Governance for multistate activities include the election of a Chair, a Chair-elect, and a Secretary. A new Secretary is selected at the end of the annual meeting at which point the current Secretary becomes Chair-Elect, and Chair-Elect becomes Chair for the next 12 months. The Committee Chair and Chair-Elect are responsible for organizing the annual meeting and planning the agenda, and The Secretary records the minutes at the meeting following their election. All officers are to be elected for at least two-year terms to provide continuity. Administrative guidance will be provided by an assigned Administrative Advisor and a NIFA Representative.

Literature Cited

Bruce AB, ET Maynard, and JR Farmer. 2019. Farmers’ perspectives on challenges and opportunities associated with using high tunnels for specialty crops. HortTechnology 29(3):290-299.

Carey EE,  L Jett, WJ Lamont, TT Nennich, MD Orzolek and KA Williams. 2009. Horticultural Crop Production in High Tunnels in the U.S.: A Snapshot. HortTechnology 19:37-43.

Fitzgerald C and M Hutton. 2012. Production practices and challenges with high tunnel systems in Maine. Journal of the National Association of County Agricultural Agents 5(2).

Foust-Meyer N and ME O’Rourke. 2015. High tunnels for local food systems: Subsidies, equity and profitability. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems and Community Development. 5(20):27-38.

Knewtson SJB, EE Carey and MB Kirkham. 2010a. Management practices of growers using high tunnels in the central Great Plains of the U.S. HortTechnology 20:639-645.

Lamont WJ. 2009.  Overview of the use of High Tunnels World Wide. HortTechnology 19(1): 25-29

O’Connell S, C Rivard, MM Peet, C Harlow and F Louws. 2012. High tunnel and field production of organic heirloom tomatoes: Yield, fruit quality, disease and microclimate. HortScience 47(9):1283-1290.

Reeve J and D Drost. 2012. Yields and soil quality under transitional organic high tunnel tomatoes. Hortscience 47(1):38-44.

Wells OS and JB Loy. 1993. Rowcovers and high tunnels enhance crop production in the northeastern United States. HortTechnology 3(1):92-95.


Land Grant Participating States/Institutions


Non Land Grant Participating States/Institutions

University of Arkansas
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