Simple: Payback.

The high tunnel experiment is quickly drawing to a close this year as the threat of frost increases and, in any case, diminishing light levels slow growth. While financial results might not be in for another few weeks, I can say now that its conclusion will be a good news, bad news, good news situation.

First the (first) good news: the revenue from the high tunnel produce has already exceeded the cost of building it. I wouldn’t be surprised if we approached $1000 or 50% over cost, depending on the weather in the next few weeks. Yay. Payback in 2/3 of a growing season.

Now the bad news: $3000 of revenue in a tunnel that size kinda sucks. I thought I had once heard a figure of $20 per square foot for tomatoes alone. Maybe I was wrong about that but, regardless, I’m pretty sure that all of the plants in the tunnel (primarily tomatoes, peppers and cukes) merely eaked out an existence, producing fruit only reluctantly. Many of the plants just have that I’m-not-thriving look to them.

I think a lot of the problem was the heavy, weedy, low nutrition soil and marginal-light location I built the tunnel on. Coupled with that may have been an eventual lack of water, at least in the last 4-6 weeks. I began irrigating the tomatoes and cukes sparingly at that time but perhaps more water would have been better. It seems that the significant increase I’ve been giving it in the last 10 days has made a difference in the cukes if not the tomatoes. The peppers, which never had any regular irrigation-just a slurp of fertilized water 3 or 4 times-, are producing fruit similarly to the tomatoes and cukes: ok but not great.

And the good news? I count this as another learning experience. I’ll be able to rehabilitate the soil by using sand and hay to break up weedy clay-clods. This fall I may actually get a soil analysis done to confirm that it’s low in nitrogen and who knows what else. Before planting next spring I’ll add appropriate slow-release amendments to compensate. The drainage we put in this summer should make for warmer, dryer soil and a quicker start to some of the plants next spring. I’ll install irrigation at the outset so that it’s not so much of a chore later on. Without all of the water this spring (hopefully), I’ll be able to dispense with the lumber-wrapped hills and furrows which, once they hardened, became a concrete hard-to-see obstacle course.

If we get a new variety of tomato, I’ll pay careful attention to whether it’s a bush or vine type of tomato and not plant bush tomatoes in the highest part of the tunnel or prune them regardless of the location!! We will not grow certain varieties of tomato at all, now that we know what they’re like. I will grow peppers in larger pots and only set them out when the weather has definitely changed to summer, even if that is mid-July like this year. I will prune cucumbers better so that their vines aren’t tripping us up between rows and their fruit cushioning our footsteps. I will make sure we have enough high revenue plants for the tunnel so that we’re not putting in dried beans just to fill space.

Undoubtedly there are more lessons but that is definitely a start. My goal next year is to at least triple the cash output which, considering no further tunnel structure expenses, means a 10x increase in bottom line. Multiply that by a few more tunnels and…hmmm…

Garlic bed almost ready for planting

 

"January King" cabbage coming along nicely.

 

"Frisee" greens (front) to sell and salad greens (behind) to eat over the fall.

 
 
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