Low Tunnel Strategies for Microclimate Modification and Early Vegetable Production

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2010: $9,591.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Grant Recipient: Michigan State University
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:

Annual Reports

Information Products


  • Vegetables: cucurbits, tomatoes


  • Crop Production: irrigation
  • Education and Training: extension
  • Pest Management: mulching - plastic, row covers (for pests)
  • Production Systems: general crop production


    This study tested various perforated plastic materials (clear and white) used as low tunnels either alone or in combination with a spun-bond material for benefits including: frost protection, earliness in planting and harvesting, and season extension. The experiment consisted of six treatments: Four combinations of clear and white plastic with or without the spun-bond materials and two controls with no covers (normal planting date in May and early planting date in April).  Using slicing cucumber and tomato, the low tunnels were investigated for their impact on the microclimate, crop earliness and economics.  Our preliminary studies showed that by combining perforated clear plastic and spun-bond material together in a low tunnel system, air temperature during frost events can be increased significantly inside the tunnels.


    For many centuries horticulturists have been challenged by the limitations imposed by climate on crop production (Well and Loy, 1985). Horticulturists today are facing the same challenges, especially in areas with a temperate climate like Michigan. Since the 16th century, many have attempted to modify the environment to enhanced frost protection and crop growth (Janick, 1979). 

    Row covers or low tunnels can modify climate by preventing frost damage and promoting earlier plant growth (Hochmuth, et al. 2009). By using plastic mulch together with low tunnels, soil temperatures can be increased, weeds can be controlled, water can be conserved, and fertilizer application is optimized (Schrader, 2000). Plastic mulches used for row covers are available in different colors, which impact the light quality and temperatures inside the tunnels. However, it is not known which low tunnel color, type, or configuration will provide the most protection in temperate climates.

    Michigan’s commercial production of fresh marketable vegetables is worth over $175.9 million in sales and covers about 49,200 acres (USDA, 2013). The Michigan slicing cucumber industry is valued at $14.4 million annually and the crop is produced on 3,600 acres, and the tomato industry is valued at $16 million annually with 2,000 acres.  Both crops contribute significantly to the state economy. 

    Both cucumber and tomato growers do not take advantage of the full potential of their crops for several reasons including the following:  (1) the growing season is short because of the limitations imposed by the temperate climate; (2) most of the crop is planted and harvested within a short window of time, resulting in peaks in harvest that routinely lead to low prices; (3) the potential of frost damage is a significant risk for growers who might want to plant earlier to avoid harvesting in the peak period; and (4) alternative methods for on-farm season extension are limited. If growers can successfully modify climate they will be able to plant and harvest earlier and command higher prices for their crops at the beginning of the season. Low tunnels are a strategy that growers can use in open field to limit the risk of frost damage, thereby allowing them to plant and harvest earlier.  

    By creating new cropping systems that overcome climate limitations, Michigan’s commercial fresh market production can grow and bring more revenue to the state.  Therefore, this study was designed to estimate the costs and benefits of various low tunnels for cucumber and tomato production under Michigan conditions.  We analyzed the profitability of using different low tunnel configurations that modify climate and compared their costs to those of standard field practices using plasticulture system in Michigan.

    Project objectives:

    Objective 1. Develop and validate new low tunnel technologies. 
    Objective 2. Conduct an economic analysis of the production systems. 
    Objective 3. Deliver information to growers and the scientific community.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.