Regional Educational Campaign for High Tunnel Vegetable Producers, Limited Resource, and Veteran Farms via On-Farm Pest Exclusion and Natural Enemy Demonstrations, Publications, and Self-help Tools

Final report for EDS19-11

Project Type: Education Only
Funds awarded in 2019: $49,648.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2022
Grant Recipient: Auburn University
Region: Southern
State: Alabama
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Ayanava Majumdar
Alabama Cooperative Extension System, Auburn University
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Project Information


Organic fruit and vegetable production is a multi-billion dollar industry with the fastest growth among agriculture sectors. Various other innovative programs, like the slow-food movement, farm-to-school, and farm-to-table, have strengthened demand for local foods resulting in increasing consumer demand for organic foods. Alabama is one of the states that truly reflects this national growth trends in organic and local food production in terms of the growing number of fruit and vegetable farms, beginning farmers, farmers markets and wholesale. The Alabama SARE and Vegetable Integrated Pest Management programs are two of the largest inter-dependent cross-regional educational programs with 10 years of consistent success. The programs educate nearly 1,000 small producers directly through on-farm visits, consultations, demonstrations, and workshops preventing 50 percent or more of crop loss and contamination. Using a sophisticated communication and evaluation system, the Alabama SARE program coordinated by the PI has developed educational content that needs to reach an increasing number of vegetable producers with high tunnels that have long suffered catastrophic crop losses from year-round pest infestations. For example, the high tunnel pest exclusion system or HTPE is a novel low-cost tactic using shade cloths to prevent insect pests on crops from end-and side-walls. Based on four years of on-farm and laboratory-based research, HTPE technology is ready for dissemination regionally to farmers for immediate impacts. Overall, this proposal aims at a “push-pull” educational model aiming to: 1. Establish shade-cloth based high tunnel pest exclusion and biocontrol field demonstrations in Alabama, Georgia, and the Florida Panhandle in cooperation with Extension Agents from three land-grant universities and key producers; 2. Establish a regional communication and training system in AL/FL/GA to provide high tunnel crop producers and educators new learning opportunities; 3. Develop distance-learning (online course) and printed resources (high tunnel crop production handbook/e-book, IPM slide charts, and project marketing materials) incorporating multi-level sustainable IPM/crop production recommendations; 4. Conduct multi-state project evaluations and outcomes monitoring for reporting purposes via the “Evaluation Toolkit” website. This project is geared toward benefiting growers, educators and certified technical service producers and field agents across AL/GA/FL. The major outputs of this project will be six on-farm HTPE demonstrations at new locations, two high tunnel workshops in each state, development of organic vegetable production slide charts, IPM newsletters, High Tunnel Crop Production e-book, and training modules in an e-curriculum. Assuming prevention of 50 percent crop losses on direct participating farms, we anticipate a cost:benefit ration of HTPE system to be 10:1 minimum for a single crop (that is, $10 return for every dollar invested in IPM technology). The overall expected impact may be $47,200 (estimate) per year for direct and indirect participants or $94,400 for the entire project period. This is a significant return based on 100 percent direct and only 30 percent indirect producer participants changing their behavior; this assessment doe not include community level impacts or assessment of environmental impacts from reduced pesticide usage.

Project Objectives:
  • 1. Establish shade-cloth based high tunnel pest exclusion and biocontrol field demonstrations in Alabama, Georgia, and the Florida Panhandle in cooperation with Extension Agents from three land-grant universities and key producers;
  • 2. Establish a regional communication and training system in AL/FL/GA to provide high tunnel crop producers and educators new learning opportunities;
  • 3. Develop distance-learning (online course) and printed resources (high tunnel crop production handbook/e-book, IPM slide charts, and project marketing materials) incorporating multi-level sustainable IPM/crop production recommendations;
  • 4. Conduct multi-state project evaluations and outcomes monitoring for reporting purposes via the “Evaluation Toolkit” website.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Jenny Jackson - Producer
  • Thomas Aliff - Producer
  • Sheena Bain - Producer
  • Joan Morbidelli - Producer


Educational approach:
  • Established two high tunnel pest exclusion (HTPE) on-farm demonstrations in GA (in collaboration with Dr. Robert Westerfield) and another in FL (in collaboration with Libbie Johnson) with producer cooperators that received a custom-cut high quality 50% shade cloth to be used as an exclusion material. This shade cloth is lowest cost (although prices have gone up post-pandemic), stops large sucking insects and moth pests, and allows many of the natural enemies to inhabit the high tunnel crops to reduce small insect pests. 
  • Established two HTPE demonstrations in state in South and East Central AL on producers from underserved communities who were looking for relief from major insect pests on vegetable crops. All four locations have become mentors to other producers in the community and hosted on-farm events with Alabama Extension for educational workshops that have been very successful.
  • We have also revised some major publications for producers and distributed them producers freely with acknowledgment to the USDA-SARE program funding. These include but are not limited to the revised Organic Vegetable IPM Toolkit, High Tunnel Crop Production Handbook, SE Vegetable Crop Handbook, and Tomato and Crucifer IPM field guides. We have also revised the FARMING BASICS PHONE APP in a major way to allow access to a large database of beginning farmer resources and social media channels and videos that are very popular among new and experienced farmers. 

Educational & Outreach Activities

30 Consultations
6 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
4 On-farm demonstrations
24 Online trainings
71 Published press articles, newsletters
5 Tours
33 Webinars / talks / presentations
11 Workshop field days
5 Other educational activities: Large exhibitions at grower conferences (with COVID restrictions)

Participation Summary:

925 Farmers participated
294 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath, we had to shift to social media and digital delivery of information for a good bit of this R&E grant. We completed some of the field work in 2021 and 2022 (largely in 2022) since farmers were reluctant to come to group in-person meetings. The numbers show in prior spaces only indicates the face to face direct contacts - not social media numbers. We completed the following social media-based events in 2020 and 2021:  Horticulture webinars (21 webinars with 694 direct participants and 19,505 indirect participants), Alabama Virtual Farm Tours (30 with over 255 direct participants and 13,822 indirect participants), and Q&A Friday Weekly Shows to answer rapid questions with live audience (45 shows with 540 direct and 23,712 indirect participants). 

Learning Outcomes

369 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation

Project Outcomes

370 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
2 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

2021 Events were poorly attended due to reluctance of producers and other participants for train-the-trainer events. We communicated and trainings via via social media events described earlier, videos on the Alabama Beginning Farmer channel on YouTube (250,000+ views) and Farming Basics Phone App (over 5,000 installs). Below is 2022 event summary when we were able to hold face-to-face meetings again and conduct event evaluations. 

2022 Event Survey Summary to Report Major Outcomes:

  • Total number of participants = 116 (5 events); number of responses = 48; Response rate = 41%
  • Total vegetable production acres reported = 427. Average 1 to 5 acres (small producer); 50 acres (conventional). 13 high tunnels. Farming experience total = 405 years.
  • First time attendees = 50%
  • Nature of audience: New/Beginning farmers = 34% (Certified Organic = 8%; Certified naturally Grown = 2%;); Experienced producers = 31%; NRCS/FSA personnel = 17%; Market gardeners/urban farms = 10%; Veteran farmers = 9%
  • Sources of information among respondents: Social media = 40%; Alabama IPM/Sustainable AG E-newsletter = 19%; REA newsletter = 27%; TV/Radio spots = 1%; Word-of-mouth = 29%
  • Change in knowledge (based on pre/posttests): Improvement in knowledge of insect scouting methods = 39%; Improvement in knowledge of temporary or permanent pest exclusion system = 55%; Improvement in knowledge of biorational insecticides = 35%; Improvement in knowledge about selective insecticides & tank-mixes = 24%; Improvement in knowledge about GAP/Food Safety/Water Quality Issues = 29%
  • Adoption rates of specific practices: Overall IPM adoption = 46 to 50%; Insect scouting techniques = 32%; Trap cropping & sanitation = 23%; Pest exclusion tactics = 21%; Biological/botanical insecticides = 42%; Spider mite reduction practices = 15%; Fertilizer recommendations = 75%; Irrigation scheduling for vegetable crops = 43%; High yielding vegetable cultivars = 36%; Fungicides = 50%; Food safety = 57%
  • Use of Extension Resources: High Tunnel Handbook = 21%; SE Vegetable Handbook = 53%; Organic Veg. IPM Slide chart = 38%; Home Garden IPM Guide = 18%; Crucifer IPM Guide = 8%; Alabama IPM/Sustainable AG E-newsletter = 39%; Farming Basics App = 38%; Alabama Virtual Farm Tours (2020 & 2021) = 38%; Commercial Horticulture Monthly Webinar Series = 33%; Q&A Friday Shows (2020 & 2021) = 22%
  • Barriers to adoption: Lack of awareness; High input cost/Lack of capital; Low availability of insecticidal products
  • Overall satisfaction from training events = 60 to 85% (average = 76%)
  • (But for question) Participant response to question "If there were NO training events or field demonstrations, what would happen?": Responses "I wouldn't farm!"; "Go without knowledge"; "Farm would fail"; "Wouldn't know who to reach out to with questions."; "Far less productivity on my farm"; "Will have info void."
  • Impact cases: 33% participants with 25% yield improvement; 22% participants with 50% yield improvement; 1 case of $50 to $500 impact; 1 case of $1001 to $2000 impact: 3 cases with use of pest exclusion system, trap crops, and bioinsecticides; >= 50% marked increase in production per tomato plant (1 case from organic HT producer); Number of pesticide spray applications: Once every two weeks; 2 to 5 times for normal production systems.
  • Selective chemicals used: Bt use (33%). 

HTPE Project Outcome/Impact Summary 

Since 2014, we have established a series of permanent pest exclusion demonstrations using 50% shade cloth as a physical barrier around traditional high tunnels popular among small producers. Many producers from underserved communities are also involved in the project. Currently there are 17 field locations (one each in GA and FL) with producers using 100% of the IPM recommendations that include the use of microbial insecticides and natural enemy conservation tactics beside pest exclusion system making this a unique participatory research and evaluation effort. Shade cloth cost is 27 to 43 cents with recent price hikes. Till date, grants have offset $8,163 in cost of materials (shade cloth) and producers have cumulatively grown crops exceeding $75,300. All producers have embraced the use of IPM in vegetable production over the years. There is a significant reduction in the number of spray applications by producers further improving crop quality and profit margin for producers.

2022 HTPE Project Evaluations: On-farm and telephonic impact evaluations of eight high tunnel vegetable producers statewide (permanent pest exclusion system demonstrations) in 2022 indicated over $30,000 increased income and 30 to 40 percent yield from four locations. Respondents had over 70 years of commercial vegetable production experience and they all observed significant quality improvement due to direct reduction in pest pressures. Insecticide need and labor cost reduced on the farms surveyed. The overall Return on Investment (ROI) ranges from $10 to $28 dollars for every dollar invested depending on the number of crop cycles inside netted high tunnels. Producers strongly support the continuation of demonstration projects with majority willing to participate in peer-to-peer trainings of other farmers in the community.

Intensive COVID-19 Virtual Training Events for Diverse Clientele: This is a team activity where the entire commercial horticulture team initiated and participated weekly/monthly training events to benefit producers that cannot attend educational events due to COVID-19 restrictions. The Commercial Horticulture Team completed 52 and 68 events, respectively, in 2020 and 2021 that consisted of the Alabama Virtual Farm Tours, Monthly Webinar Series, and Q&A Friday. In 2020, 1,335 direct and 35,387 indirect participants attended the 68 online events. There were 5,589 engagements and the team answered over 170 questions during the weekly Q&A Friday shows. Social media (Facebook) membership grew 77% with 4,071 followers by the end of the year across three team channels. Demographics included 47% males, 50% females, and 3% others; 84% white, 7% black, 7% Asian, and 2% others. We had 25% new audience, 22% beginning farmers and 10% experienced farmers in online events overall. Flash updates and posts also resulted in 40+ media reports in specialty crop magazines across the southeast. About 125 respondents indicated over $50,000 gain in crops or savings on inputs. In 2021, 52 virtual events were completed in a more organized fashion by the entire commercial horticulture extension team based on 2020 outputs and outcome data. We had 936 direct and 21,652 indirect participants with 158 questions answered via Facebook Live event (Q&A Friday). We had over 7,063 post engagements in 2021 and 117% growth in three Facebook channels since the pandemic started in 2020.  We had 14% beginning farmers, 11% experienced producers, 31% urban, community, and home gardeners, and 10% educators among the attendees (65%M, 38%F, 1%Others; 86% white, 12% black, 1% Asian, 1% Others). Innovations in events included bringing 16 guests on Q&A Friday shows, doing ag trivia and giving out 18 prizes, and using horticulture-related cartoons to increase audience engagements (about 5,000 views). Respondents (n=136) indicated 95% usefulness of horticulture crop production and pest alert information since it prevent major crop loss and contamination. We have additional social media metrics available upon request! Availability of the Farming Basics Phone App really helped beginning farmers connect to various team resources and access online archive/video recordings throughout the pandemic.


COVID-19 caused sever disruptions to on-farm demonstrations and assistance for over two years. We educators have to be better prepared for future such incidents. We also learned how to properly utilize distance education techniques incorporating social media channels, phone app, online course, e-newsletter, etc. Cost of inputs have risen since the implementation of the grant and this increased cost strained grant budget for us. 

Information Products

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.