Turning up the heat on your vegetable operation could mean you get to market earlier than your neighbors with fresh produce or it could draw folks to your U-pick operation earlier in the year.

Either way, it could generate profits for you this spring, as you gain an extra month on the tomato or pepper market by using hoop houses in your field, says Steve Upson, a horticulturist with the Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Okla.

“Ultimately, this whole system is a market-driver,” Upson told growers at the Piedmont Specialty Crops School in Oxford, N.C. recently.

Hoop houses are used extensively in New England and in Asian countries. They could also have applications for growers in the South, Upson says.

The cost of setting up the semi-permanent structures is relatively inexpensive. They are also relatively easy to install, Upson says. To do it, however, you've got to make it pay.

Essentially, a hoop house is an unheated greenhouse in the field. Because you're able to plant earlier and are taking advantage of the heat generated under the plastic, you're able to harvest tomatoes up to a month earlier than those grown conventionally.

In southern Oklahoma, where Upson works with the Noble Foundation, producers who use the hoop house system are harvesting tomatoes by the end of May or the first week in June. Field production usually isn't ready for harvest until the first of July. Upson says growers in the Upper Southeast have a similar growing season as those in Oklahoma.

That earliness can translate into extra money. “It's not impossible to ask $1.50 a pound for tomatoes,” Upson says. “That would be a very good price. During the summer, if you can get 80 cents to a $1 a pound, you're doing well.”

Having produce to sell early is one of the reasons to consider using a hoop house. “You might be growing a loss leader, but you're getting people used to coming earlier to you and that might give you an advantage over other producers,” Upson says.

Another reason for using hoop houses: It creates another opportunity for U-pick operations. “It's great for U-pick when it's wet or cold,” Upson says. “You might have to charge more, but customers might be willing to pay to have a nice environment to pick produce at a time when conditions outdoors are not as pleasurable as they would be later in the year. They'd get that tropical feel. A lot of people would pay for that.”

“A hoop house is really not difficult to construct,” Upson says. “It's a simple greenhouse frame.”

Most hoop houses are not permanent. Posts on the end of the structure are anchored into concrete with the end wall and frame. The hoops and the bows are attached to the support posts, which are driven into the ground. “It's a pretty quick operation,” Upson says. “But you have to make sure it's built level and straight.” In Oklahoma, if these structures are under-built, they'll blow away.

The construction cost varies from $1.50 to $3 per square foot. “That will vary depending on how you build it,” Upson says. “Like everything else, you get what you pay for.”

For more information, Upson can be reached at the Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Okla. His e-mail, sdupson@noble.org.