HARTWOOD, Va. — Farmers will have fresh, local summer produce available sooner than ever this spring, thanks to technology that can add several weeks to growing seasons.
“I try to get my tomatoes and the occasional cucumber plants started in my hot houses in the beginning of January,” said Matt Eustace, owner of Willowlyn Farms Produce in Stafford County. “I usually plant about 100 hybrid slicing tomatoes and another 100 heirloom tomato varieties. The heirloom tomatoes do best in the greenhouse and hoop house because they’re protected from excess rainfall.”
Eustace is among hundreds of Virginia vegetable producers taking advantage of plastic covered tunnel structures known as hoop houses or high tunnels. “Basically it can add 30 days to the season both at the beginning and the end. The earliest I’ve had ripe tomatoes is June 18, but it’s possible to have them as early as mid-May in some parts of Virginia. And I’ve still had fresh tomatoes into December,” he said.
Willowlyn Farms is a community-supported agriculture operation, and Eustace also sells to restaurants and some wholesale markets. His hoop house allows him to raise produce almost year-round. “I also raise greens through the wintertime, using my high tunnels. There’s always something growing in there. I also sell at three local farmers’ markets, so the hoop houses have given me a real competitive advantage,” Eustace said. “Anytime you can get a product first to a market, you can reap a premium price.”
Hoop houses offer growers a lot of versatility, agreed Tony Banks, commodity marketing specialist for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. “You can set them up as fully-enclosed structures that just allow sunlight in and can be heated in colder periods, and then transition them to basically a structure that keeps extra rain off the plants in mid-summer. This gives growers much better control over their environment for the plants.”
To learn more about how hoop houses work, visit pubs.ext.vt.edu/content/dam/pubs_ext_vt_edu/AREC/AREC-50/AREC-50_pdf.pdf.
— Virginia Farm Bureau Federation