When Dr. Matthew Kleinhenz talks about his work in high tunnels, the excitement in his voice is palpable - the kind of excitement that makes you want to get in there and see exactly what they’re working on for yourself.
"First and foremost, our goal is to discover ways to manipulate the microclimate surrounding crops, and to monitor and record how that manipulation effects overall yield, quality, and efficiency," said Dr. Kleinhenz, reflecting on his work as a Professor of Horticulture & Crop Science and Extension Specialist at The Ohio State University.
"In that regard, the high tunnel we received from Rimol has been unique among the other nine we have at our facility in Wooster."
Whether he’s planning and conducting a research project or guiding a group of farmers, students, or community members in a learning exercise, Dr. Kleinhenz seems fit to burst with ideas as to how to take high tunnel growing into new frontiers.
We know - we’ve been partnering with him, his team, and his collaborators for years, first as friends in the industry and, later, as partners and donors connected in the goal of helping to enhance the success of farmers, farmer advisors, educators, and others.
The result: one of our most exciting and insightful institutional partnerships to date. Whether it’s helping growers find ways to improve their incomes or watching students grow into the next generation of industry leaders, our partnership with Dr. Kleinhenz and Ohio State has been one well worth experiencing - and worth sharing with you.
Using New Greenhouses To Conquer Old Issues
Through all of the testing, research, and trials Dr. Kleinhenz and the Extension faculty at Ohio State take on, one philosophy seems to permeate the organization: learning as much as they can to pass on to others to benefit.
Case in point: the work they’ve done in their Moveable Feast high tunnel, and the effect this effort has had on many connected to growing and relying on vegetables.
"Most high tunnels are placed and remain on one spot of land. So, growers need to maximize output from that spot for years to come,” said Dr. Kleinhenz. “The benefit of a moveable tunnel is that it provides a larger operational space – maybe more than double the space. Here, because we can place the tunnel over a different piece of land at least once per year, we can take a wider variety of steps to better manage both the health of the soil underneath and the utility of the covered space than we would be able to in a stationary tunnel."
Similarly, Dr. Kleinhenz and the Ohio State staff have also been impressed by specific high tunnel ventilation components – i.e., with the automated environmental control system on their moveable tunnel.
"The challenge, and opportunity, for greenhouse and high tunnel growers is to maintain a more consistently favorable environment around their crop. For high tunnel users, this requires effort – in some areas and at some times of year it is significant due to changing weather and crop needs. That time and effort can take away from other important activities," said Dr. Kleinhenz.
Partially automating the action of major components such as vents and roll-up sidewalls improves both the reliability and ease with which target conditions are achieved, in Dr. Kleinhenz’s experience.
"Key equipment, i.e., sensors, the battery-operated control panel, endwall vent and sidewall motors, and on-the-spot management for changing wind levels and ventilation, has helped us significantly reduce the time and effort required to maintain target conditions, thereby allowing us to focus on other important work that cannot be automated. For both us and growers, carefully-selected and reliable automation can reduce the risk of not opening or closing the tunnel at the optimal time and to the correct amount. As we know, that risk can be high at various times."
But despite the experience Dr. Kleinhenz and his staff have accrued working with these systems, the technology and design behind them remain, relatively, brand new. That’s where a partnership with a company like ours comes in - and ever since we first connected, the process has been illuminating.
Finding A Partner We Can Work With
For Dr. Kleinhenz and his team and collaborators, high tunnel growing really became a major part of the equation in 2003, when his program installed its first set of high tunnels.
A short time later, he headed to Penn State to participate in a symposium centered around high tunnel use.
Presentations gave much food for thought but Dr. Kleinhenz also appreciated what Bob Rimol, founder of Rimol Greenhouse Systems, and and the only manufacturer of high tunnels attending the symposium, had to say.
"In a room full of (mostly) extension folks, Bob was very patient, talking with people and answering questions,” said Dr. Kleinhenz. “I went over to chat and quickly found we had similar thoughts about the industry – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities."
Dr. Kleinhenz had come to the Penn State symposium with two distinct thoughts in mind:
- High tunnel design is not done, and that there was plenty of room to expand beyond the standard gothic- or semi-circle quonset hut styles, and
- Of the various improvements or variations that will prove useful to high tunnel design moving forward, movability will be among the most important to some.
This kind of thinking spoke directly to the heart of Rimol’s innovation process, and a connection was quickly formed between Dr. Kleinhenz’s goals and Rimol’s practical ability to experiment with high tunnel design and implementation.
Things moved quickly from there - Dr. Kleinhenz connected with Rimol Greenhouse Co-founder Mike Marett, and the discussion quickly centered around that question of creating a moveable tunnel. What Dr. Kleinhenz was looking for was something very difficult to find: a larger greenhouse, stable when in place but easily moved, including over uneven or sloped terrain and/or existing raised beds (if needed), and not only in a straight line (single direction).
Mike and Bob had long thought about experimenting with a moveable tunnel, but seeing others on the market made them pause. At first, a truly better, grower-friendly moveable tunnel seemed out of reach. Long-standing questions about stability (especially in high wind), ease of moving, etc got in the way.
The design process leapt forward when Rimol connected with Dr. Kleinhenz, and the two parties could really dig into new, grower-centered ideas. Mike eventually took Dr. Kleinhenz’s ideas to longtime high tunnel expert Eliot Coleman of Four Season Farm in Maine. After some back and forth, Coleman had created a workable blueprint for Rimol to build on - and the rest came down to production, that process of tinkering and adjusting to find the system that works. The result: Ohio State’s Moveable Feast greenhouse, an innovative structure that can be lifted off the ground, attached to wheels, and moved any direction – free from rails – all in a matter of hours by 2-3 people using a small set of standard tools.
"It was like this perfect match of shared interests: we needed a specific design, and they were ready to experiment,” said Dr. Kleinhenz. “Other companies make excellent high tunnels, but are less interested in trying something new, addressing certain needs. Rimol appears to be stepping out and asking ‘What’s next?'"
"It was that depth of partnership, the durability of their structures, and the reliability on all fronts that made working with Rimol so valuable to us,” he said. “What’s on the ground today may not be what’s needed in years to come; I’m sure we’ll push for additional modifications and improvement in moveable design, and we’ll be working with companies like Rimol and their partners for components and suggestions to get that done. The enjoyable challenge here is to help farmers and others for whom high tunnel use is very important."
From our perspective, one of the major reasons this partnership worked so well is because we understand the need. Mike Marett, for example, is a high tunnel grower himself, and so seeing the struggles of growers from that perspective really helped influence the design and drive of the entire project.
"I love sitting in on seminars given by researchers, listening to their actions and their effect on the industry, and getting to know the growers on the ground,” said Mike. “Honestly, it’s so helpful to have somebody to bounce ideas off of - because that’s really the first step toward taking action and getting things done."
While the Moveable Feast wheeled greenhouse system at Ohio State may still be in its prototype stage for now, the results have been significant. Farmer-centered research and extension, student instruction and projects, and community outreach have all been enhanced by the presence of the innovative structure at OARDC.
Looking Forward, For The Good Of All
Moving forward, our team at Rimol is more than a little excited to contribute to work resulting in new and innovative growing strategies and tools.
Growers looking to enhance their output recognize that growth in understanding and ability comes from a lot of different places. The “school of hard knocks” too often is one of those places. We look to coordinate, tinker, improve, and offer resources that bring greater success more quickly, reliably, and easily.
"Overall, farming is a high-stakes experiment. Farmers understand costs, benefits, the need to sometimes stand pat, and the need to innovate and change. We experiment to help them and others along their chosen path," said Dr. Kleinhenz. "Sometimes, when we push the envelope then go back to the drawing board, in the end, we are able to help provide stakeholders with a better option. Just as important, they will have risked or spent little in helping create it."
"That’s not to say we’ll be leaving proven, traditional high tunnel structures any time soon - those will undoubtedly remain the go-to high tunnel option for us and many growers' he said. "But I do expect to see an increase in the number of people looking for adjustments with high returns on investment. Also, these returns may be calculated keeping dollars and cents, efficiency, flexibility, and sustainability in mind."
Updates in moveable high tunnel systems, or in automation, or environmental control – these are all just one piece in the whole puzzle, albeit with the same broad outcomes: improvements in success for specialty crop producers, and for those interested in the success of others.
"Collaborating with and learning from others is more than just enjoyable for us, it’s essential. It’s a team effort. We’re pleased to contribute what we can," Kleinhenz said.
We couldn’t be happier with our relationship with Dr. Kleinhenz, or more excited to see his team’s continued innovation and experimentation with the Moveable Feast and other high tunnel systems.
Interested in seeing what we can do to benefit your institution? Get in touch and learn more about our Institutional Partnerships - just one more way we’re working to help growers on the ground bring in better, fuller, and more productive harvests in the years ahead.
Together, We Grow!