Arkansas High Tunnels
Extending the Growing Season
By Benjamin Harrison
Barnhill Orchards is known across Central Arkansas for their sweet strawberries.
Stretching over the pastoral northern fields of Barnhill Orchards in Lonoke, high tunnels dominate the horizon. But the hope for extended seasons and greater profits mirrors an unpredictable local market, hefty startup costs, and crop and soil management issues. Despite this, some growers have balanced the act and aspire to better compete with high-mileage produce from out of state.
“Our plan is to have a whole bunch more,” says second-generation farmer Ekko Barnhill. “Ideally, everything we wanna grow is gonna be in a tunnel. That would be perfect because you keep the wind and the rain off it.”
Her brother, Rex Barnhill, adamantly agrees. “I’m trying to go big,” he says. “I mean, to me, 2 acres is big. I’d like to come in first of March and go out (the) middle of July. That’s my goal with strawberries. California does it year-round. For some reason, they’ve got the right environment. We don’t.”
Five years ago, when the Barnhills began installing high tunnels, the cost of one was around $5,000. Today, that cost has nearly doubled to around $9,000. “What you see here, in this bay, is one-fifth of an acre,” Rex says. “So if you multiply that out, for an acre, that’s $50,000.”
But there’s money to be made. Strawberry season in Arkansas usually lasts 4-6 weeks, but Rex has managed to stretch it to four-and-a-half months. High tunnels magnify the sun’s natural heating capacity in late winter and early spring. During the summer months, shade cloth is applied to lower temperatures within the tunnels by 10-15 degrees.
Each crop a farmer grows has a specific set of needs. For Barnhill, growing year-round is restricted to its signature Muir lettuce. June pushes 90-degree temperatures, a death knell for strawberries, and the cool winter weather restricts summer onions and the like.
Costs associated with high tunnel production don’t stop with the initial installation. The plastic coverings have to be replaced every 5-6 years. Gusting winds are the largest factor for high tunnel growers in Arkansas. “When the wind comes in here,” says Rex, “about 60 miles an hour is all these things can handle. Some of this plastic’s gone way over there in the next county. I don’t even know where it is.”
The majority of Barnhill Orchards’ high tunnels were purchased without the help of the Natural Resources Conservation Services, which provides partial funding to farmers for high tunnels. Some growers may consider the NRCS standard tunnels somewhat overkill for Arkansas weather. Their metal posts are more tightly spaced, and they are designed to withstand heavy sleet, snow, wind and rain. They’re also about twice the cost of most of the tunnels at Barnhill Orchards.
Bobby Burrows walks the rows of a high tunnel at the St. Joseph Center of Arkansas.
NRCS high tunnels may be a better fit for a small-scale nonprofit operation like the St. Joseph Center of Arkansas in North Little Rock. They received financial assistance through an urban farming grant from the NRCS and three high tunnels through the NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Following the guidelines and requirements to receive funding for the high tunnels can be a bit of a bother, and the sturdier tunnels may not be necessary in Arkansas’s less-extreme climate.
The growers at St. Joseph’s are only in their second year of high tunnel operation, but they have already seen their share of successes and struggles. “We carried our tomatoes to November last year,” said Bobby Burrows, which is about a month longer than previous seasons. “We put shade cloth over the top, and we can keep our tomatoes and peppers going in July and August. We’re just now [in early April] getting into where we started planting last year. But we’ve been going all winter with lettuce and radishes.”
Still, demand in the local market determines which crops growers experiment with and, ultimately, how high tunnels are used in Arkansas. “We started doing more head lettuce and salad mix,” says Travis DeLongchamp, another grower at St. Joseph’s. “The nice thing about the lettuce is we can get rid of it pretty easily. We’d do other things if we knew people would buy it.”
That sentiment is echoed by Rex Barnhill, who is running a trial of five varieties of strawberries this season. “You need to extend the season [on strawberries],” Rex says. “I’m not doing a very good job here, because my main squeeze is lettuce.”
High-mileage, low-cost produce from out of state pressures local growers to focus on the easy money first. For many farmers, that’s lettuce. “If I’m raising lettuce,” Rex says, “I can pay off [the tunnel] in one year. If I’m raising strawberries, I can probably pay it off in one year. I charge twice as much, but every leaf on [my] plant is usable. And in the strawberry business, I’m not picking it green and letting it ripen on the truck. The flavor is there. The flavor in a California berry isn’t there, because they’re picking them green.”