Stepping into the relative shelter of a high tunnel can be a varied experience. One might find a welcome warmth on a cold spring morning, a false summer created by the sun’s heat soaking through and then being contained by plastic skin stretched over the tunnel’s aluminum ribs. In the heat of summer, there might be a blessed coolness; shade cloth stretched over the structure dims the bright light and lowers the ambient temperature.
On an August afternoon at Soulshine Farm in Bedford, VA, the high tunnels feel like a respite. Smelling strongly of soil and new growth, the first of these two 24’x100’ structures is the center of production for this small market farm. Under the light-permeable ceiling, seedlings are shielded from temperature extremes, inclement weather, and pesky rabbits that would really enjoy some tender baby leaves; this protection allows Soulshine owner Dustin Foreman to start seeds weekly - a necessity for succession planting - and ensure production and harvest throughout the season. One length of the tunnel is lined with black flats of microgreens in various stages of production; some contain two-week-old sunflower and radish stems bursting with nutrition and vitality and ready to go to market, and some appear nothing more than trays filled with swelled seed, the barest hint of green bursting from inside and stretching towards the light.
The second tunnel is warmer and noticeably more humid than the outside environment, and the wet air is filled with the fragrance of tomato leaves. This makes sense; there are hundreds of tomato plants vining up their single leader trellis lines. Cherry tomatoes glow like holiday ornaments on the vines.
Dustin walks through the two structures swiftly, glancing at his crops with a proud and practiced air as one of his staff carries trays of leafy green starts out to the field to start another cycle of planting - these seedlings will provide harvest in the coming months.
Past the second tunnel, there’s a cleared and leveled patch of ground, and Dustin points at the loosened earth. “This is where the new one will go,” he says. “We’re hoping to get it put up this fall.”
Aided by a grant from the NRCS and supported by a bridge loan from FoodCap, Soulshine Farm is putting up a third high tunnel. Next year the farm will start spring by growing lettuces in their newest structure, enabling them to start their season earlier as well as keep their crops safe from pests. “We had a setback when deer got into the field this year,” Dustin explains. “Next year we’ll plant our salad greens in the tunnel.”
High tunnels are a valuable element of a small farm’s infrastructure and operations. While farmers are used to the unpredictability of weather and climate, feeding people requires taking steps to mitigate surprises and create stability - what is a farm but a tiny patch of controlled cultivation in the midst of a wild natural world? Using high tunnels to protect crops from heat waves, cold snaps, wild winds, and heavy hail allows farmers some security and protection from that natural chaos. At Soulshine, 2023 will bring a new high tunnel, a little more steadiness, and a lot more baby lettuces.