High tunnels for local food systems: Subsidies, equity, and profitability
O'Rourke, Megan E.
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High tunnels are expanding opportunities to increase local food production in the midst of a globalized food system. They can overcome biophysical growing constraints by buffering temperatures to extend the growing season and shelter crops from extreme weather events. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) began subsidizing the purchase of high tunnels. However, many questions remain about the factors influencing participation in the program and its impacts. Using mixed-methods research, this paper assesses the biophysical, market, and socio-demographic factors influencing NRCS high tunnel adoption in the U.S. and examines how food production in high tunnels affects farmers, consumers, and the local food movement. Results show that the number of NRCS high tunnels per county increased in relation to a mixture of biophysical (high latitude, proximity to the coast, small average farm size, and high percent of farmland in vegetable production), market (high direct-to-consumer sales, good access to grocery stores, and high median household income), and socio-demographic (high percentage of nonwhite population, metropolitan counties with more than 250,000 people, and adjacent urban counties with fewer than 20,000 people) factors. According to our survey of Virginia high tunnel growers, high tunnel produce is largely sold locally (within 50 miles or 80 km of production) and marketed direct-to-consumers in Virginia. Many growers in Virginia who would not have purchased a high tunnel without NRCS support plan to purchase additional high tunnels in the future even without a subsidy. High tunnels are an emerging part of the U.S. local food movement, but work remains to ensure that their benefits reach all sectors of U.S. society.