UACES Facebook High Tunnel Specialty Crop Production in Arkansas
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High Tunnel Production in Arkansas


High tunnels in production. Image provided by Katy Brantly.

High tunnels offer a cost-effective way to extend growing seasons and protect crops from adverse weather.

Successful high tunnel production often requires more detailed attention to management strategies such as: pest control practices, canopy management and irrigation and fertility programs. High tunnel production also requires dedicated and daily climate monitoring and management. Despite this, the benefits to high tunnel production can more than compensate for the extra time and labor demand.

When managed correctly a high tunnel can enable a grower to produce high quality produce with greater predictability throughout the entire year. They can also be used to extend farm revenue periods and increase farm diversification.

Before committing to a high tunnel, it is important to understand what to look for when selecting a high tunnel location or how the design elements of a tunnel can impact management strategies. Knowing pest and climate control strategies will also make production more successful and help avoid potential yield loss and improve production quality. 

High Tunnel Workshop Resources

(Hope, AR - March 21, 2024)



High tunnels consist of a single layer of plastic stretched over metal or PVC hoops. Tunnel designs can vary and be modified or adapted to fit a growers’ needs.

Plants growing in a high tunnel.

The plastic covering protects crops from damaging weather events, such as rain or hail. Temperature modification, however, is what high tunnels are most known and used for. Air and soil temperatures inside a tunnel warm more quickly in the spring and remain warmer longer in the fall. This allows for earlier plantings in the spring, and extended production into the fall and winter months.

Temperature control is achieved through manual or passive methods. Temperatures are raised by solar radiation while cooling and humidity control is done manually by opening doors, rolling up/down sidewalls and opening vents.

Different high tunnel designs.
One key design choice growers should consider carefully is ventilation capacity. Inadequate ventilation can lead to excess heat and humidity buildup inside a tunnel causing plant stress and increased disease pressure. Images from Taunya Ernst.

 When managed correctly high tunnels offer growers several new opportunities and advantages over field production: 

  • Longer growing season  
  • Protection from adverse weather that could damage or kill plants 
  • Moderate control over a crops climate 
  • Better crop quality and yields 
  • Improve farm revenue
  • Reduced disease pressure (in some cases) 
  • Improved irrigation and fertility management

Inside a tunnel, plants are most often grown directly in the existing soil and irrigated using drip systems. The incorporation of fertigation into a drip system can give growers a targeted nutrient delivery system that reduces waste. For information on how to install or design a fertigation system see Additional Resources below. Various plastic and organic mulches are commonly used to help control weeds and improve soil health.

Pest damage in a high tunnel.
Mouse feeding damage (top image) and a two-spotted spider mite outbreak (bottom image) inside a strawberry high tunnel. Images from Taunya Ernst.


High tunnel production often requires more detailed attention to management strategies when compared to field production.

The modified environment that protects crops and promotes faster growth rates also attracts insects, rodents, and other pests. The absence of rainfall, in addition to the optimal climate conditions inside a tunnel can allow insect populations to reach damaging levels more quickly.

Without the implementation of effective integrated pest management (IPM) practices the need for insecticide applications may occur more often in high tunnel production than under field conditions. Improper climate management, or poor tunnel design can lead to increased incidences of diseases and the need for pesticide intervention.

For information on IPM strategies for high tunnel production see IPM Practices and Strategies below. 

While high tunnels offer many possibilities and new opportunities, they also present new challenges and the decision to invest in a tunnel should be given serious consideration. Anyone interested in investing in a high tunnel should understand the potential limitations, costs and struggles that accompany high tunnel production. Before purchasing a high tunnel consider the following questions:   

Will the proposed location accommodate a high tunnel?

Surrounding area: High tunnels need more space than just the ground they cover. Tunnels should be located in an open area where air movement is unrestricted. Poor air movement will lead to poor tunnel ventilation. Heat stress and higher disease pressure are both common issues in poorly ventilated high tunnels. Areas with high wind should be avoided. If a building or windbreak is near the anticipated site, the tunnel should be set back 2 to 2.5 times the height of the structure to prevent shading. This is particularly important for growers who plan to utilize the tunnel during the fall and spring when the lower sun angle casts longer shadows. 

A row of high tunnels.
This row of three high tunnels has ample distance from surrounding structures and tree lines to prevent shading. Image from Taunya Ernst.

Topography: While a site does not need to be perfectly level, the slope of the land should not exceed a 5% grade. Larger gradients could cause structural stress that could inhibit climate control or require costly repairs. Irrigation and fertigation uniformity could also be negatively affected. A small tunnel, with a simple design will accommodate larger slopes more readily than more robust larger tunnels but will also be more susceptible to wind damage.

Drainage: Having a slight slope can help prevent runoff and drainage issues. Poor drainage can become a huge limitation to successful production. Unless adequate precautions are taken, low laying areas, or areas where soil remains soggy long after a rain shower should be avoided. The runoff from the tunnels' plastic roof covering will amplify any preexisting drainage issues. Without adequate drainage this water could flow into the tunnel causing disease and other problems. Installing drainage systems before or after a tunnel is constructed is possible but will increase the initial cost of tunnel installation.

What is the condition of the soil?

Sites with persistent or lingering soil issues should be avoided. Issues like compaction, soilborne diseases or nematodes could be amplified under high tunnel production conditions. If the anticipated site is in a former or current production field these soils could harbor pests. This is particularly true if the field grew crops that share disease and insect susceptibilities as the planned high tunnel crops. Labs such as the Arkansas Nematode Diagnostic Laboratory, can test soil samples for the presence of harmful nematodes.

Do you have the time and labor to operate a tunnel?

Successful high tunnel production largely depends on the time and attention dedicated to it, and growers that invest the needed time and labor in tunnel management will attain a higher return. When compared to field production, high tunnels require more time and labor for proper crop management. Climate control, especially in the spring and fall, could be a twice daily (or more) activity. Pest monitoring will also be more intensive as the microclimate created by the tunnel can promote rapid pest outbreaks.

Floating row cover in use inside a high tunnel.
Plant rows being covered with a floating row cover for added frost protection on a cold night. Image from Amanda McWhirt. 

What crops are you planning on growing?

Production in a high tunnel is costly and crop selection should be done carefully. While it is possible to produce most common fruits or vegetables in a tunnel, not all will be profitable. If generating revenue is the tunnel’s purpose, then crop selection will be more limited. The comparatively short list of profitable high tunnel crops will complicate crop rotation schedules which could lead to increased disease pressure inside the tunnel. For information on common high tunnel crops see the section on Crops Commonly Grown in a High Tunnel.

Is there a market for out-of-season produce?

High tunnels make it possible to produce fruits and vegetables outside of their normal field production time. However, being able to supply the produce does not guarantee a market demand for that produce at that time. This is of particular concern in more rural areas. Before investing in a high tunnel, it is vital to explore retail avenues that can be utilized or developed in the surrounding area.  


Whether buying a manufactured kit, or designing your own tunnel there are a few things that should be considered to ensure your tunnel design will support your production goals. A poorly designed tunnel will cause management frustrations and increase insect and disease pressures. Consider the following questions when selecting a tunnel design:  

1.   What is the climate like where the tunnel will be located?                    

Tomato flowers senescing due to high temperatures within a tunnel.
Tomato flowers aborting due to high temperatures within a tunnel. Image from Taunya Ernst

Not all tunnel designs will produce well in Arkansas. Even with a shade cloth temperature within a tunnel will be warmer than the temperature outside. Because of this many high tunnel producers in Arkansas often struggle with excess heat and humidity within the tunnel, particularly when using the tunnel thoughout the summer. Among the most important design considerations is good ventilation. 

Look for designs with large doors, or end walls that can be removed for increased air flow. Additional roof or sidewall vents will increase the cost of the tunnel, but the improved air flow could prevent heat damage stress and disease hotspots. See the section on ventilation.

Different designs in high tunnels with varying levels of ventilation capacity.
High tunnels with different designs with varying degrees of ventilation capacity. Images from Taunya Ernst

Even in northern parts of Arkansas where temperatures are colder, adequate ventilation is important for disease management. However, additional considerations may be necessary to protect plants during the shoulder seasons and the cold winter months, if year-round production is desired. 

2. What crops will be grown in the tunnel? 

While all tunnels can easily support shorter plants, such as lettuce or strawberries, canopy management for taller crops could become frustrating if the tunnel design does not accommodate the canopy height. Crop quality and yields could also suffer. While more expensive, including taller sidewalls in a tunnel design will provide more usable canopy space and accommodate taller crops more easily. Increasing sidewall height will not only accommodate taller crops, but also improve airflow within the tunnel.

High tunnels with different sidewall heights.
High tunnels with different sidewall heights. Images from Taunya Ernst.

3. What size tunnel can the land support?

French drain
An exposed French drain to direct runoff out of the tunnel. Image from Taunya Ernst

A high tunnel should be in a sunny spot, on level ground for good drainage. Tunnels need to be placed an adequate distance from nearby structures or tree lines to prevent shading within the tunnel. Reductions in sunlight will negatively impact plant growth. Poor drainage can cause flooding within a tunnel which will compromise production success and cause disease and insect problems.

Year-round access to irrigation and labor should also be considered when selecting a tunnel size. Remember, tunnels often require additional labor hours for climate management, pest monitoring and out of season production.

4. What equipment will be used inside the tunnel? 

Select doors or end walls that will allow desired equipment to enter the tunnel easily. Sidewall height will also influence what equipment can operate safely within the tunnel.  

Equipment operating inside a high tunnel.
Varies types and sizes of farm equipment operating inside a high tunnel. Images from Amanda McWhirt.

5. What common adverse weather conditions will the tunnel encounter? 

Additional structural support may be necessary in areas that experience high winds or snowfall. While many single bay tunnels are better able to withstand adverse weather conditions when compared to multibay tunnels, keep in mind that not all single bay tunnels have the same level of support or sturdiness. Gothic styled tunnels, for example, shed snow loads more easily than their rounded counterparts. Tunnels with a sturdier design, or the inclusion of additional supportive structures will cost more upfront but could prevent costly repairs in the future.

Gothic styled high tunnel and additonal anchoring.

A gothic styled high tunnel is shown in Image A (provided by Katy Brantley). Image B shows additional anchor supports for high wind areas (provided by Taunya Ernst).

Crop selection will depend on the purpose of the tunnel. If profitability is not a concern, then just about any common fruit or vegetable crop can be grown inside a tunnel, if the gardener is willing to put in the needed effort.

For growers using a high tunnel to increase farm revenue, crop selection should include market research to determine what crops can be grown profitably in their area.

Nationally, vegetables are the most common high tunnel crops, with tomatoes easily being the most popular and profitable, followed by bell peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, summer squash and eggplant. Strawberries and other small fruits have also been profitably produced within a tunnel. In more recent years production of larger fruiting crops, such as raspberries, blueberries and even some tree fruits have been trialed in high tunnels in many states.

Just like in field production, planting date is important for high tunnel production. Planting date is largely determined by a crops’ specific growing requirements and the temperatures that can be maintained inside the high tunnel.

Generally, if no supplemental heating is provided, more hardy warm season crops, such as tomatoes and peppers, can be transplanted a month to a month and a half before the areas last frost-free day in the spring, while more tender crops, such as cucumber or summer squashes, can be transplanted about two weeks later. Frost cloths may still be necessary to protect plants on very cold nights.

Average last freeze dates in Arkansas.

Average frost-free dates for areas throughout the state of Arkansas. Image obtained from The National Weather Service ( 

Cool season crops that are intended to be harvested as full-sized heads or plants during the winter months, should be planted early enough for plants to reach nearly full size before temperatures and light levels become too low to support growth. Later plantings are possible for crops harvested as individual leaves or as smaller plants. Keep in mind that growth rates will be markedly slower for these later plantings and having multiple plantings spaced a few weeks apart could produce a supply of fresh young leaves for a longer period. Cool season crops can be transplanted in late December or January if spring harvests are desired.

The generalizations outlined above are a good place to start when determining planting dates for high tunnel production. However, adjustments may be necessary for unique micro-climates and market goals. Take the time to become familiar with your climate and how well your tunnel design can modify that climate for crop growth. This knowledge and understanding will help narrow down optimal planting dates.   

Production guides for common high tunnel crops:  

High Tunnel Tomatoes: University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension

Seasonal High Tunnel Production: Organic Tomato Guide: The Carolina Farm Stewardship Association

High Tunnel Pepper Production: Utah State University Extension

High Tunnel Leafy Greens and Herbs: University of Kentucky Extension

Lettuce Cultivars for High Tunnel Systems

High Tunnel Strawberry Production: Tips for Getting Started


The hot and humid summers in Arkansas could become limiting for high tunnel production if heat and humidity buildup cannot be sufficiently vented. Poor air circulation can lead to heat stressed plants and cause disease and insect "hotspots" to form within the tunnel. This means that adequate ventilation will heavily impact the success of a high tunnel. Even in cooler months, when heat capture is desired, ventilation will still be necessary for humidity and disease control.  If secondary covers are being used for additional frost protection, these should also be vented to prevent high humidity levels.  

Tunnel design considerations that can improve ventilation:

  1. Tunnel height and width: Narrower tunnels will cool more easily while a taller wider tunnel will retain heat longer on a cold night. 
  2. Tunnel orientation: Orienting a tunnel so vents are perpendicular to the prevailing wind direction will improve airflow.
  3. Vent to floor ratio: It is recommended that a tunnel’s ventilation area should, at the very least, be equal to 25% of the tunnel’s floor area. In the hot Arkansas summers, a 25% vent to floor ratio may be inadequate, and more ventilation may be advisable.  

Taller crops will reduce air movement within a tunnel. This can lead to pockets of warm wet air within the tunnel that should be monitored closely for disease outbreaks.


Common Types of High Tunnel Ventilation:

Common Types of High Tunnel Ventilation

For more information on high tunnel ventilation:

Presentation on high tunnel ventilation from Alabama Extension

Types of ventilation systems for high tunnels

Shade cloth:

In addition to adequate ventilation, a shade cloth will be necessary in the long, hot, and sunny Arkansas summers to avoid heat related plant disorders and stress. A shade cloth reduces the amount of sunlight entering a tunnel which helps reduce the internal temperature. Shade cloth is made from a loosely woven polypropylene product and comes in a range of shade ratings (10% to 80%) and colors. Keep in mind that in addition to reducing heat a shade cloth will also reduce the amount of light reaching plants which, if reduced too much, can negatively impact plant growth.

Shade cloth covering two high tunnels
Strawberry plants inside a tunnel covered by a shade cloth (image A), and a high tunnel covered by a shade cloth (image B). Images provided by Taunya Ernst.  

Secondary Covers:

Plants may need additional frost protection during the spring, fall and winter seasons, particularly on cold nights when temperatures drop below freezing. Many growers use secondary covers inside a high tunnel to give plants a few more degrees of protection. While a variety of secondary covers have successfully been used to protect plants, the most common is a woven fabric, often referred to as a floating row cover or frost cloth, that is placed either directly on plants like a blanket or suspended over plants using hoops. Frost cloths can come in a range of thicknesses that offer varying degrees of protection. Humidity levels can build beneath secondary covers and it is important to remove or open them to discourage disease growth and spread. Often, secondary covers can be removed during the day to vent humidity and be replaced in the late afternoon or early evening.

Floating row covers, or frost cloths, covering rows of strawberry plants inside a high tunnel.
Floating row covers, or frost cloths, covering rows of strawberry plants inside a high tunnel. Image provided by Taunya Ernst. 

Environment Management Resources: 

Managing a Warm Summer in a High Tunnel

Managing the Environment in High Tunnels for Cool Season Vegetable Production

The tunnels' protected environment, which does such a great job promoting faster plant growth and earlier harvests also favors the rapid reproduction of many soft bodied insect pests. The absence of natural mortality events, such as rainfall, will further quicken population growth. This is especially true for insects that overwinter in the soil or may reproduce on non-crop plants growing in or around the tunnel. The lack of rainfall can also decrease the impact of entomopathogenic pathogens (pathogens that grow on or within insects often killing them), which help manage soft-bodied insects in field production. Consequently, without intervention, small populations can reach damaging numbers within days. Insect pests that are becoming common high tunnel pests are two-spotted spider mites, aphids, white flies, and thrips

Image A: Aphids on a strawberry leaf. Image B: Two-spotted spider mite outbreak on high tunnel strawberries.
Image A: Aphids on a strawberry leaf (provided by Aaron Cato). Image B: Two-spotted spider mite outbreak on high tunnel strawberries (provided by Taunya Ernst).

While high tunnels can help reduce pressure from diseases that rely on rainfall or water splashes to infect plant material, other diseases will experience a favorable environment inside a tunnel. However, when the tunnel climate is managed effectively, disease pressure inside the tunnel can be much lower than under field conditions. Effective management includes venting to keep humidity levels and temperatures within optimal ranges while maintaining good air circulation around the plant canopy. A crop rotation schedule will help prevent the buildup of soil borne disorders. Diseases seen most often in Arkansas high tunnel production include powdery mildew and botrytis.     

Strawberries infected with botrytis.
Botrytis on high tunnel grown strawberries. Image from Taunya Ernst. 

An integrated pest management, or IPM, program is a sustainable decision-making approach that uses a combination of pest management practices to manage pests while considering the economic and ecological impact of the management tactics.

A good IPM program begins with effective cultural and physical practices that minimize the introduction or spread of a pest inside a production system. This is of particular importance for high tunnel production due to how quickly pest outbreaks can happen once a pest is introduced to the system. The isolated nature of a high tunnel makes biological methods, such as the introduction of a natural predator, more effective than under field conditions. However, timing is paramount for a biological control practice to work successfully. Chemical control methods, both organic and conventional, are generally available for use within a high tunnel, however, label restrictions may exist. Before applying any chemical, read the product’s label to understand all safety precautions and restrictions. When applying a chemical inside a closed tunnel it may be advisable to follow greenhouse application restrictions.

Below is an introduction to some IPM practices for high tunnel production. 

Have an Action Plan Ready to Go: Whatever pest issue may arise, be prepared to react fast. Before planting, have a plan of action in place. Tunnel environments can cause rapid population growth and issues can get out of control quickly. A fast response will prevent severe outbreaks and crop loss. When possible, have any necessary supplies on hand.

Check Transplants Before Planting:  Carefully inspect transplants for signs of disease or harmful insects before bringing them into the tunnel. When possible, select cultivars that exhibit some resistance to expected pest issues. If purchasing transplants, acquire them from a nursery that has a reputation for supplying disease and insect free plants.

Sanitation: Good sanitation can reduce favorable environments that foster the growth of insect populations and disease development as well as remove sources of inoculum and improve air flow within the tunnel.

Good sanitation practices include:

  • the disinfection of any equipment, such as trellising materials or clippers, used within the structure
  • the removal of any infected plants or plant debris.

The presence of non-crop plants in or around a tunnel (such as weeds) can harbor pests and create what entomologist have termed a “Green Bridge.”

Green bridges allow pests to establish earlier, faster and produce more generations in a season. Earlier establishment of pest populations exposes tender young plants to damaging pest populations before natural defenses develop.

Green bridges can be avoided by keeping the tunnel and surrounding area clear of weeds, junk piles, and other debris. To truly avoid a green bridge any green plant material should be removed from inside or around the tunnel for at least 4 weeks prior to planting. It is also important to think about the idea of a green bridge when considering moving from one crop to the next, as insects will move from dying or removed plant material to anything green as they search for food. Generally, planting 1-2 weeks (at the least) after all plant material has been removed will suffice.

Rotate Crops Grown in a Tunnel: A good, well-thought-out crop rotation plan will disrupt disease and insect cycles, preventing pest pressure from building with each new planting. Avoid successive plantings of a crop, or crops in the same family, in the same high tunnel.   

Proper Environment Management: Many diseases and insects prefer a humid or moist environment. Inadequate ventilation within a high tunnel can cause pockets of warm humid air, creating “hot spots” for diseases and insects. Ensure proper ventilation and monitor potential hotspots closely.

Scouting and Monitoring for Diseases and Insect Pests: Prevention and early detection of pest issues is the foundation of a successful IPM program. Scouting should occur multiple times a week. If that is not possible, scout at least once a week.

Ensure anyone working with a crop is familiar with symptoms of common pests. Yellow sticky cards can enhance, but should not replace, a scouting program. While scouting methods can vary by crop, a good rule of thumb is to check at least 5 plants/100 ft of row for summer crops (tomatoes, peppers etc.) and 10 plants/100 ft of row for leafy greens.

In addition to scouting random plants, seek out any plant that looks unhealthy. Many issues can be found from the “turnrow” and will help determine outbreak sources. If more than one crop or cultivar is in a single structure, be sure to scout plants from each cultivar and crop.

Identifying common high tunnel and greenhouse pests.

Good Record Keeping: Good records can be used to indicate when annual pests are likely to appear each season. This will allow growers to be prepared with needed supplies and act before outbreaks occur. Records can also indicate where “hotspots” are within a tunnel.

Good records can show if or which IPM methods work and help pest management specialists advise on action plans. Helpful information to collect includes dates, crop information (growth stage, cultivar etc.), type and severity of pest, and presence of natural enemies. Some insect pest species are trapped by the University of Arkansas and information about their prevalence throughout the year can be found here: Insect Pest Monitoring in Arkansas

Examples of insect scouting guides: 

Insect Scouting Guide from University of Kentucky

Insect Scouting Guide UMass Extension  

Pesticides in a High Tunnel: When applying a pesticide (organic or conventional) keep an eye on chemical temperature restrictions as it is often warmer inside the tunnel. When applying, be safe and follow all safety recommendations on the label. Most organic pesticides will work best as a preventive spray and will have little impact on a severe outbreak.  Be wary of applying any oil-based pesticide or EC formulations when temperatures reach 80-90 degrees, especially on the west side of tunnels in the evening hours.

Organic Producers: High tunnels offer organic growers alternative pest control options including avoidance (such as growing outside the normal season), natural enemies, and biocontrol. Keep in mind that organic options work best as preventive methods and will do little against an insect or disease outbreak. Sanitation and other preventive methods should be done rigorously to avoid possible outbreaks.

This list of control practices is not meant to be an exhaustive description of IPM strategies for high tunnel production, but instead is intended to give a grower a place to start. Contact your local Extension office for more information or further assistance.

Additional IPM Resources:

Insecticide Recommendations for Arkansas - MP144

2023 Southeast Vegetable Crop Handbook

The Arkansas Plant Health Clinic

Quick Facts about the NRCS High Tunnel Grant:


Applicates must own or have control over eligible land for the lifespan of the program’s contract and must develop an NRCS EQIP plan of operation. Additional eligibility information can be found at your local NRCS field office.


While the contract does not restrict tunnel length, the tunnels’ width cannot exceed 30ft and the tunnel must be a minimum of 6ft in height (at its peak) to qualify for financial assistance. While the amount of funding received is based on tunnel size, beginning in 2024 new regulations will introduce a cap, and will only cover a maximum square footage of 2,160. Underserved producers may qualify for additional financial assistance. Visit your local NRCS agent for more exact financial information.


To be eligible for financial assistance, tunnels must be purchased as a kit from a reputable manufacturer. All manufacturer instructions and specifications must be followed when preparing for and constructing the tunnel. Additionally, applicants must select a tunnel design that the manufacturers specifications indicate can handle environmental conditions common in the area, such as snow or high winds.   


Growers will initially be responsible for the full cost of the tunnel. Once the tunnel is constructed, they will be reimbursed. Advance payment options are available for applicants that meet specific eligibility requirements. For more information on reimbursement timelines and payment options visit your local NRCS office. Some high tunnel suppliers are willing to work out payment plans with growers to reduce the size of initial payments while they wait for reimbursement.

Qualifications for advancement payment:


Modifications or improvements can be made but must meet all the specifications of the manufacturer. Improvements include (but are not limited to) electricity, heating systems and additional/automated venting systems. Growers are responsible for the cost of any modifications or improvements.  


Any annual or perennial crop can be grown in an NRCS funded high tunnel but must be grown in the natural soil. Mounding soil without any structural sides is allowed but must not exceed 12 inches in height. Raised beds with structural sides are not permitted (there may be some exceptions to this, visit your NRCS office for more information). Under the current guidelines, growing crops in pots or on benches is not allowed. Tunnels cannot be used as a storage shed.


  • Water management (irrigation and microirrigation system design)
  • Drainage management systems
  • Nutrient and salinity management
  • Integrated pest management
  • Underground outlets
  • Mulching
  • Critical Area Planting
  • Crop rotation
  • Cover crops
  • Rainwater catchment system
  • Compost application (soil carbon amendment)


Find your local NRCS county office

Criteria for an NRCS high tunnel

Information on additional NRCS practices and programs


How to recover a high tunnel: 



High tunnel program logo