What To Consider When Growing Vegetables Under Cover

This row of tomatoes with large fruit load is part of an on-going project with DeRuiter Seed Co
This row of tomatoes with large fruit load is part of an on-going project with DeRuiter Seed Co.
for variety trial testing for
semi-arid, high-light regions.
Photo Credit: UA-CEAC/DeRuiter Seed Co.

So you want to grow vegetables in your greenhouse or high tunnel. Where do you start?

For those in the floriculture industry who want to make the switch to vegetables, the biggest thing to consider before getting started is the market. You need to know where you will sell your greenhouse or high tunnel tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, etc. — whether it is the local grocery store, a restaurant, a farmers market, or CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program.

Let Market Be The Driver

According to Roberta Cook, a marketing economist at the University of California-Davis, many times companies are motivated by production to get involved in protected agriculture.

“They’re being more production-driven than market-driven, which is typically something we see in agriculture,” she says. She points out the market on the buy side is consolidated, with much of the retail consolidation taking place within the last 20 years. Buyers are interested in suppliers that have the volume to meet their needs, so Cook cautions growers just starting out that without a defined marketing scheme, they will not have access to the large buyers.

“The first thing I would recommend to anybody getting into a new crop regardless of the method of production is doing market research to understand where the market is, who the market is, and whether they have the wherewithal to service the market competitively,” she says.

In addition to the market, you have to look at efficiencies. Cook says an important question to ask is: Can I produce that volume more efficiently with at least part of that production in protected agriculture?

“If the answer is ‘yes,’ it may make sense for you,” she says. “[This is] as opposed to someone just coming in and saying, ‘OK, now I’m going to get into greenhouse vegetable production,’ and start a crop they haven’t worked with and don’t have established buyers.”

Gene Giacomelli
Gene Giacomelli

Gene Giacomelli, director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center (CEAC) at the University of Arizona (UA), says the environment of your location must be considered as well. Take note of the weather that occurs in the area, such as cold temperatures, wind, and hail, and understand what you might be up against. He cites the extensive hail that damaged a couple of Village Farms’ Texas greenhouses a couple of years ago as an example of some of the challenges.

“Once you know what your environment is, you can look at what your cost is to grow, and then determine the price point for your product,” he says.

“As a field grower who has lost many crops over the years and wishing I had a greenhouse at the time, I like the predictability of a greenhouse,” Giacomelli says. “You have a lot more possibilities to save your crop and reach a market on a predicted date and to hit the high-price market by timing it.”

From Floriculture To Vegetables

Those possibilities remain for growers coming from the greenhouse floriculture market to vegetable production in a protected culture, except they are faced with a slightly different challenge. According to Giacomelli, these growers are using their traditional floriculture greenhouses and some have noted that vegetables demand more attention and environmental control than flowers.

Some floriculture growers are transitioning slowly to vegetables, and some may eventually leave the floriculture business to grow greenhouse vegetables, he says.

How To Choose Your Crops

Most of the growth in U.S. protected culture vegetables is in fruiting crops, starting with tomatoes and followed by cucumbers and peppers, Cook says. The vast majority of the growth is in tomatoes.

“The tomato market is one of the most competitive of any vegetable crop, in part because there are so many production regions in North America that may be producing at the same times of year,” she explains.

In spite of the saturated market, Giacomelli says we will continue see an increase in greenhouse tomato production, and it is not just the beefsteak tomato anymore. You have much more from which to choose, such as the truss, grape, cherry, cocktail, yellow, and purple tomatoes.

That variety, Giacomelli says that will keep tomatoes as reigning “top crop” in protected culture. That’s not to say, though, that there aren’t several up-and-coming crops moving into the marketplace.

A couple of those are sprouts, microgreens, and “baby” varieties, which include baby spinach and lettuce. What is driving production of these crops is consumers’ interest in fresh salad and the fact that these products are packaged in nitrogen-filled bags to increase shelf life and quality, he says.

Roberta Cook
Roberta Cook

Growing Interest In Berries

Berries in protected culture are another point of interest, Cook explains. Currently, blackberries and raspberries are being produced in protected environments. Where there is potential for growth, however, is in strawberries.

Most straw-berry production in protected culture is in the experimental phase, and part of that is evolving in Mexico, where raspberries and blackberries are being produced, she says.

“One of the factors these berry crops have in common is they’re high-value crops,” Cook points out. “It does increase your cost to grow in tunnels, but they are crops where there is now year-round demand. We cannot grow these crops year-round in the U.S. except for strawberries [within the berry category]. And even in California the volumes are quite low in December and in January.”

Blueberries, Cook continues, are also an up-and-comer for protected culture. They can’t be grown in the open field in the winter, with the exception of Florida, where it is an especially high-value winter crop that needs to be protected from frost damage. “It may make sense for [these growers] to experiment with some protected culture, even though it will be higher cost just because of the market benefits they may achieve,” she adds.

Key Considerations When Growing Under Cover Greenhouse Vegetables November 2015
Blueberries are an up-and-coming, high-value crop to consider for protected culture production.

Words Of Advice

Suffice it to say, if you are going to get involved in protected production or expand your operation, many decisions must be made — from structure to the crops you will grow.

According to Giacomelli, if your goal is season extension, use high tunnels, as they are a low-cost option. If you want to be a year-round producer, however, there are many good U.S. companies who can help you choose the structure that best fits your needs.

He suggests visiting the National Greenhouse Manufacturers Association’s website to learn more about the companies involved in greenhouse design, heating, cooling, irrigation, etc.

“Look at which companies may service your area the best and talk to them about greenhouse design,” Giacomelli says. “Tell them what you want to grow and they may be able to help you, or talk to your local county Extension agent or university researcher if that person is experienced in greenhouse vegetables. Go where the research is being done to see if you can get some advice, and do a lot of reading.”

Giacomelli also says to consider attending the UA-CEAC annual Greenhouse Short Courses.

Labor Considerations

Most of you coming from open-field vegetable production have employed some type of labor force. The situation is similar in protected culture such as a greenhouse, especially if you are thinking of expanding. In protected cultivation, however, the issue isn’t necessarily harvest labor. The need is for someone in a management position.

According to Giacomelli, you have to do your homework before expanding to see if your business can carry the weight of an additional full-time employee in a management role. If you hire that additional manager, you risk failure because of the increased payroll strain. Plus, he says that person has to be as dedicated as you are to your operation, and that is very difficult to find.

“That is why when we see 1/2-acre ‘mom and pop’ operations expand to more than 2 acres and bring in someone from the outside to help run the greenhouse, they risk failing because you have that load of the extra person,” he explains.

Plus, Giacomelli says we are limited in people who are educated and experienced on the real workings of the greenhouse crop production facility.

“Most greenhouse operations hire labor positions, not managerial positions. We need growers who can manage a greenhouse,” he says. “We don’t have enough of them.”

Topics: ,

Leave a Reply

One comment on “What To Consider When Growing Vegetables Under Cover

More From Varieties...
Suntory Grandessa argyranthemum - feature

September 18, 2017

Breeders Open Availability for Unrooted Cuttings; Here’s How Growers Will Benefit

With new avenues for buying young plants for vegetative production, growers should have an easier time finding availability and receiving shipments of unrooted cuttings for the coming seasons.

Read More
Ball, Tagawa Succulents Partnership

September 14, 2017

Ball Seed to Partner With Tagawa Greenhouses on New Succulent Offerings

The new program includes in-demand retail products that are popular with younger shoppers, allowing growers to easily build a comprehensive succulent program and stay on-trend in the marketplace.

Read More
Strait-Laced Elderberry

September 10, 2017

Check Out the Top Varieties On Display at Farwest 2017

A panel of plant experts, along with show attendees, selected their favorite offerings during the Farwest 2017 New Varieties Showcase.

Read More
Latest Stories
Suntory Grandessa argyranthemum - feature

September 18, 2017

Breeders Open Availability for Unrooted Cuttings; Here&…

With new avenues for buying young plants for vegetative production, growers should have an easier time finding availability and receiving shipments of unrooted cuttings for the coming seasons.

Read More
Ball, Tagawa Succulents Partnership

September 14, 2017

Ball Seed to Partner With Tagawa Greenhouses on New Suc…

The new program includes in-demand retail products that are popular with younger shoppers, allowing growers to easily build a comprehensive succulent program and stay on-trend in the marketplace.

Read More
Strait-Laced Elderberry

September 10, 2017

Check Out the Top Varieties On Display at Farwest 2017

A panel of plant experts, along with show attendees, selected their favorite offerings during the Farwest 2017 New Varieties Showcase.

Read More

September 5, 2017

Hort Couture Announces New Propagation and Broker Partn…

The new grower-propagator partners are deeply vested in the independent garden center channel with propagation expertise, as well as finished production focused on the independent grower.

Read More
Helianthus Sunfinity (Syngenta Flowers)

September 3, 2017

Growing Tips for Helianthus Sunflower ‘Sunfinity…

This annual sunflower is a profuse bloomer with strong branching that produces multiple flowers per plant from spring to fall.

Read More
Ball Seed Field Day 2017

September 2, 2017

Highlights from Ball Seed’s Annual Field Day and Landsc…

Attendees of the one-day event had the opportunity to see new plants in up-close-and-personal trials, and engage with speakers and product experts.

Read More
Bidens Popstar (Kientzler)

August 31, 2017

Allan Armitage: Why I’ve Become a Fan of Bidens

The rather boring plant with mundane daisy-yellow flowers has morphed into a vigorous plant carrying colorful flowers that seems to be comfortable in most of the country.

Read More

August 29, 2017

27 New Impatiens for Spring Color in 2018

Gardeners love impatiens because they are one of the few plants that offer stand-out, splashy blooms for shady areas, and in some cases full sun. There's no shortage of new introductions this year to choose from for your 2018 product mix. Here are 27 new and improved varieties to consider offering to your customers.  

Read More
Calandiva kalanchoes (Dümmen Orange) Feature

August 28, 2017

Lifestyle Plants Are in Full Bloom for Consumers

The latest decorating trends indicate consumers want hassle-free, colorful plants with big flowers — and growers are finding unique ways to cash in on these luxury-item sales.

Read More
Cuphea Fairy Dust Pink (Proven Winners) feature

August 26, 2017

Kelly Norris: Noteworthy Plants That Caught My Attentio…

Imagine the modern consumer getting so excited about a new plant that they shared the experience with a friend, perhaps not even a fellow gardening consumer.

Read More

August 20, 2017

Proven Winners and Kentucky Nursery and Landscape Assoc…

This year, KNLA is combining its summer outing with the Proven Winners Landscape Roadshow for an informative event that will take place on September 21.

Read More
Four Star 2018 Catalog

August 18, 2017

Four Star Greenhouses’ 2018 Catalog Includes New Variet…

The new catalog is available in both print and digital formats, and features information on new trays that allow for more plugs per square foot.

Read More
Francis Kwong, PanAmerican Seed

August 15, 2017

Ornamental Seed Scientist Francis Kwong Dies at Age 65

Kwong was most recently the Director of Seed Technology for PanAmerican Seed, and his research was instrumental in the development of calibrachoa, angelonia, and other plants.

Read More
Candy Tops Snapdragons Series (Sakata Ornamentals)

August 3, 2017

Five Characteristics Breeders Want in Top-Performing Sp…

New spring annuals have to provide something for everyone — longevity, durability, performance, and more — if they want to meet breeders’ high standards for market-worthy plants.

Read More
Petunia 'Headliner Pink Sky" (Selecta)

August 3, 2017

Why Eccentricity is the New Black in Spring Annuals

Consumers judge plants by appearance, color impact, and ease of maintenance, which is why retailers want new spring annuals that are novel standouts.    

Read More

August 1, 2017

39 New Vegetables and Herbs for 2018

New vegetable and herb introductions for 2017 offer unique shaped fruits, distinctive foliage, intense flavors, improved disease resistance, high yields, and more. Here are 39 new vegetable and herb varieties to consider for your product mix in 2018.

Read More
2018 Griffin Catalog

July 31, 2017

Griffin Releases Print and Digital Versions of Its 2018…

The 250-page print catalog features more than 350 new varieties from leading breeders, while the enhanced digital version has extra features on crop culture, grower tools, and more.

Read More
Emerald-Coast-Growers-Guide-Feature-Image

July 27, 2017

Emerald Coast Growers Offers Updated Guide on its Newes…

This year’s guide features new varieties while maintaining Emerald Coast’s ornamental grass program and expanding its perennial plants line.

Read More