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Hoop House Survey Provides Glimpse of Fledgling Industry

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Each summer at the Noble Research Institute, college interns from across the country journey to Ardmore to work on various agriculture-related projects. In the summer of 2007, Mark Swapp, a horticulture major at New Mexico State University, was commissioned with the task of administering and summarizing results of a survey of hoop house (a.k.a., high tunnel) growers in Oklahoma and the 18 Texas counties located in our service area. By the end of his internship, Mark had interviewed growers from 12 Oklahoma counties and one Texas county.

The objective of the survey was to develop a snapshot of hoop house grower demographics, type and size of hoop houses, crops grown, disease, weed and pest control problems, pest control technologies utilized, marketing methods, profitability, educational needs, and production obstacles and challenges. Based on my experience conducting hoop house research and demonstration projects over the past 12 years, most of the survey results were anticipated; however, there were a few responses that caught us by surprise. Eighteen growers participated in the survey with a total of 34 houses. Survey results showed that single-bay, stand-alone houses are much more popular (91 percent) than multiple-bay houses (9 percent). This is most likely due to the greater skill required to assemble a multiple-bay house and, depending on model, the increased cost of a multiple-bay structure.

As expected, most of the house frames - 62 percent - are constructed using steel pipe. I was surprised that none of the houses were constructed using PVC pipe. PVC pipe is often the first material considered by first-time hoop house builders because of its wide availability and relatively low cost. The absence of any PVC structures suggests that growers are doing their homework prior to construction or quickly changed to steel pipe after the PVC structures blew away in a storm.

In the business world, the percentage of repeat customers is a direct indication of product satisfaction. How likely are growers who have hoop houses to construct a new one? The survey said 89 percent are very likely or somewhat likely while only 9 percent said "no way."

Some of the reported benefits of hoop house growing over field production include increased yield, improved crop quality, risk management, profitability, competitive advantage, convenience and season extension. When asked how satisfied they are with these benefits, over 70 percent said they were very satisfied with the increased yield, improved crop quality, earlier production and competitive advantage. Only 56 percent of the respondents said they were very satisfied with the level of profitability associated with hoop house production while 31 percent were somewhat satisfied. Growers should not be fooled into thinking hoop house production is a get-rich-quick scheme. Yield increases and earlier production come at a cost - the cost to construct and maintain the house.

When asked to list one improvement that would make growing in a hoop house easier, the response given most often was an automatic venting system. This is very much in step with our experience at the Noble Research Institute. To realize maximum benefit from a hoop house, vents must be adjusted continually to maintain the ideal growing environment. This is not possible for growers with off-farm employment and very restrictive to folks working on the farm. By necessity, hoop house growers not willing to be married to the hoop house will need to install an automated venting system.

Space doesn't permit an exhaustive discussion of the survey findings. A more detailed presentation will be given at the Horticulture Industries Show scheduled for Jan. 4 and 5, 2008, in Tulsa, Okla.

Since the summarization of the survey findings in July, I have been made aware of several hoop house growers who did not participate. If you are a hoop house grower or know a hoop house grower who has not participated in the survey, contact me at (580) 224-6433 or sdupson@noble.org. I'll send you a copy ASAP!