Find the Right High Tunnel for Your Farm

The cost and design of high tunnels varies widely. Selecting the right high tunnel for your farm can help you avoid overpaying for features you don’t need.

by Robin Hackett
PHOTO: AgriLife Today/Flickr

Building a high tunnel for your farm can vary widely in cost. High tunnels can cost less than $900 or more than $10,000 depending on a variety of factors, including what you plan to grow and where your farm is located. Here are some ideas to help you consider what type might be right for your farm and how much it will cost.

Determine Your Budget

Before you begin shopping for high tunnels, it’s important to know what you can afford. There are several state and federal programs that provide money for high tunnels to beginning farmers, so contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service or extension agent to see what funding you can pursue.

Decide the Tunnel’s Primary Purpose

Before purchasing a one, it’s also important to have a clear sense of what purpose it would serve. Although it’s common to believe that putting up a high tunnel is part of becoming a legitimate vegetable grower, it makes sense to invest in one only if you have a plan for how it will benefit your farm.

What you plan to grow will determine many of its attributes, including its size and what kind of utility hookups it needs. If you want to build a tunnel to propagate your own starts, for instance, you’d need a relatively small and well-insulated one. If you want an unheated tunnel for midsummer tomatoes, on the other hand, you’d need a larger tunnel with high side-walls and gothic ceilings to maximize your vertical space.

Choose a Location

The structure’s location on your farm can substantially affect the construction and cost. The ideal site for a high tunnel is generally level, with good sun exposure, adequate drainage and at least somewhat protected from the wind. Leveling a site adds a lot to the cost of building a tunnel, as does adding running water, gas or electrical lines.

Find a Tunnel to Fit Your Needs & Budget

Once you have a sense of what you want from the structure and what you can afford to spend, it’s time to begin searching for the right fit for your farm.

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The most simple and affordable high tunnels tend to be rounded, “quonset” style structures with single-bend frames and no side-walls or end-walls. Kits for a 16-by-16-foot high tunnel in this style start at around $900. Buying the parts and building a similarly sized tunnel yourself can be even cheaper. The DIY high tunnel calculator from Johnny’s Seeds is a helpful resource for pricing out DIY builds, and it also lists the parts needed for tunnels of various sizes.

Larger high tunnels quickly become more expensive. A basic 30-by-96-foot setup starts at $6,449. High tunnels also become more expensive the more you deviate from a basic quonset design. End-walls and side-walls typically cost a few thousand dollars more, as do houses with gothic peaks designed to shed snow. A 30-by-96-foot gothic high tunnel with roll-up side walls and doors, for instance, starts at $9,489. Additional purloins that connect the bows of the tunnel can also dramatically increase the price of the structure, but these can be important in preventing wind or snow damage.

Calculate the Expected Returns

Before making the purchase, run the numbers to make sure that the design you’re considering is a good investment. Calculate the revenue that you expect the tunnel to generate every year. How many pounds of tomatoes do you expect your tunnel to yield, for instance?

Now, compare these numbers to the total cost of the tunnel, including any add-ons you need. Will the high tunnel be able to pay for itself in two to five years? If not, think about ways to either sell more products from the tunnel or construct one that costs less.

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