An Educational Program to Expand Season Extension of Horticulture Crops in West Virginia

Final Report for ENE08-109

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2008: $52,517.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: Northeast
State: West Virginia
Project Leader:
Dr. Lewis Jett
West Virginia University
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Project Information

Summary:

High tunnels and other season extension tools are becoming a best management practice for growing specialty crops in many regions of the United States. In West Virginia, prior to 2007, this technology had not been encountered or widely adopted by growers. To facilitate the transition from open-field production of fruits and vegetables to protected culture production, a nucleus of twelve season extension educators, including new and experienced growers, extension and USDA personnel was created. Over the course of four years (2008-2012), Dr. Jett and his colleagues trained this diverse group of educators on season extension technology through workshops, field days and other venues. Five hands-on, season extension workshops per year (20 total) were conducted from 2009-2012 in West Virginia, with half of these facilitated by extension educator participants. In addition, six grower-educators who learned through the project became a valuable resource for helping other growers with high tunnels, conducting 2 educational events per year on their farms. Attendance at the project’s season extension educational events totaled more than 500 new and established West Virginia growers. Educational resources including 10 fact sheets and 5 PowerPoint slide sets were created covering the spectrum of issues associated with season extension of specialty crops within high tunnels. An NRCS fact sheet and seven web and press articles were also written. All of the 12 grower and extension educator -participants of the training successfully constructed one or more high tunnels by the end of this training.

Grower and extension educator surveys conducted from 2011-2012 revealed 90% of 92 farmer participants would or have changed production practices based on results from season extension research and outreach. Over 100 high tunnels have been constructed by West Virginia growers since the initiation of this professional development project, and this has significantly increased the supply and diversity of local food in West Virginia. High tunnel construction has increased in West Virginia 15 fold since 2007, from fewer than 20 in 2007 to more than 150 in 2012. In 2012, a survey of 25 farmers’ market vendors revealed approximately 50% use high tunnels for specialty crop production, while a similar 2007 survey of 35 vendors revealed that fewer than 6% used high tunnels. More than 100 West Virginia specialty crop growers have been approved to receive NRCS cost-share funding since 2010, and an additional 50 high tunnels have been constructed since 2006 without cost-share assistance.

Other beneficial outcomes from this program include a Specialty Crop Block Grant for low-cost season extenders, received by one of our collaborators and a grower-educator, that has, to date, constructed 8 high tunnels in southern West Virginia counties. The Farm to School program is blossoming in WV, and all grower-educator collaborators as well as many other high tunnel growers are participating in this program. Partnerships with USDA-NRCS were also created and strengthened through the course of this grant, and District Conservationists are interested in high tunnel production and are seeking training.

Performance Target:

The objectives of this project were:

1. Train approximately 10 members of the West Virginia University (WVU) Extension Horticulture Team, 2-3 West Virginia State University (WVSU) extension personnel, and approximately 5 progressive growers from across WV on season extension technology.

2. Given the resources provided over the course of this professional development program, the extension- and grower-educators will conduct and participate in 6 regional workshops or field tours exhibiting and discussing high tunnels and other season extension technology reaching approximately 200 farmers. At least 20 growers (10% adoption rate) will have constructed a high tunnel by the completion of this project as a result of the training received by the extension- and grower- educators.

3. By completion of this professional development project in 2010, all grower-educators will have constructed at least one high tunnel on their respective farms, and an additional 20 high tunnels will be constructed by commercial horticulture crop growers at large in West Virginia as a result of resources derived from this professional development project.

The performance targets for this professional development project were:

A comprehensive survey of extension- and grower- educators at the completion of this project will document the following:
a. Extension- and grower-educators will have a significant increase in knowledge and skills specific to high tunnels and season extension technology when this project is completed in 2010.
b. All extension- and grower-educators will have used information and resources derived from this training program in 6 regional workshops and field tours which they have facilitated or participated.

As a result of this program, approximately 200 West Virginia growers will be exposed to high tunnel technology and at least 20 growers will have adopted this technology on their respective farms by 2010.

Introduction:

West Virginia has a variable climate for producing specialty crops. The state is small geographically, but there is a wide fluctuation in topography. As a result, production of vegetables, fruits and herbs is risky given early or late freeze events. Many West Virginia producers are small and beginning farmers, so investment in large farms or greenhouses are not sustainable. Therefore, West Virginia was the perfect environment for evaluating low-cost, season extension technology such as high tunnels.

High tunnels are plastic-covered, minimally heated, greenhouse structures which can be used to grow a diversity of crops year-round. Prior to the start of this professional development project, season extension technology has been widely adopted in many states in the Northeast. However, West Virginia has not seen a significant adoption of this technology by producers. One potential obstacle to wide-scale adoption of season extension technology in West Virginia is a fundamental lack of knowledge on designs, construction, economics, cropping systems, irrigation, rotations, soil fertility, pest management and other production and marketing issues. This professional development project recognized the knowledge and skill deficit in 2008 and developed an educational program to train a new group of extension and grower educators on high tunnel season extension technology.

Focusing on high tunnels as the most effective season extension tool, this project used workshops, tours, and field days as venues for education on high tunnel design, construction, temperature, water, nutrient, and pest management, cropping systems, marketing and economics. Training involved hands-on and lecture-style training with printed and digital resource materials available to the attendees. A team of horticulture extension personnel and growers werechosen as primary educators for this project. Attendees have been randomly surveyed to determine change in knowledge and skills throughout the project. All attendees have served as future educators for regional workshops and field days exhibiting season extension tools in West Virginia. This project has significantly increased adoption of season extension technology in West Virginia and increased the supply and diversity of local food.

Educational Approach

Educational approach:

To train extension and grower educators a diverse curriculum was developed. Topic areas covered over the course of this professional development project included: 1). Site selection, and layout of a high tunnel, 2). Design, construction and limitations of a high tunnel, 3). High tunnel crop marketing and economics, 4). High tunnel microclimate temperature and humidity management, 5). Drip irrigation and water management of high tunnel crops, 6). Nutrient management of high tunnel crops, 7). High tunnel cropping systems, 8). High tunnel IPM, 9). Season extension tools within a high tunnel, and, 10). Harvesting and marketing high tunnel crops.
The audience for this season extension educational program initially started with members of the WVU Horticulture Team which includes 8-10, county-based extension agents and 2-3 WVSU extension agents. In addition, approximately 5 experienced horticulture growers and marketers from West Virginia who currently do not have high tunnels were included in the training. USDA-NRCS personnel also participated in the training program from 2009-2012. This represents a targeted group of educators with diverse backgrounds and the ability to develop their own educational programs to educate new and existing growers on season extension to all corners of West Virginia.

The training commenced in 2008 and continued through August 2012. While some previous SARE PDP projects have focused on high tunnels, this program was specific to West Virginia and emphasized active learning and resource development. This program has been a unique combination of active, hands-on learning supplemented with lecture-style training and demonstrations in a classroom or open-field setting. Participants have helped with constructing high tunnels. Farm tours have complemented the workshops. The sites for the training have been at multiple locations to facilitate the diverse audience and demonstrate the use of season extension in different ecological regions of West Virginia. Dr. Jett has traveled extensively across the region collaborating with grower-educators on research and demonstration high tunnel projects ranging from rainwater catchment to cover cropping.

The instructors for this training were horticulture researchers, extension personnel and growers with wide ranging experiences in season extension. Dr. Lewis Jett, WVU State Extension Horticulture Specialist, who is well-trained in season extension technology and high tunnel integrated crop production topics. Dr. Barbara Leidl, a greenhouse specialist and research scientist from West Virginia State University, the 1890 Land Grant, co-instructed the sessions on design and construction. Ms. Pam West, a successful grower who uses high tunnels in her farming operation, provided training on high tunnel vegetable and floriculture production and marketing crops grown within high tunnels. Mr. Terry Hudson, a small market farmer from Kanawha County, West Virginia evaluated low-cost high tunnel designs. Season extension resource materials including fact sheets and PowerPoint slide presentations have been placed on compact discs and distributed state-wide for further season extension training events. Additional resource materials related to season extension developed by other states were also provided to the attendees. Since the attendees actively participated in construction of 2-3 high tunnels over the course of this project, a DVD detailing design and construction of a high tunnel will be created. The product of this training is an integrated team of extension and grower educators who will be a long-term resource for season extension of horticulture crops in West Virginia.

Milestones

Milestone #1 (click to expand/collapse)
Accomplishments:

Publications

The SARE Professional Development Project has had significant accomplishments for West Virginia producers:

1. A critical mass of educators has been created to assist new high tunnel season extension.
2. Resource materials have been created and are being used to train new and existing high tunnel producers.
3. Adoption of high tunnel production has markedly increased and has had an impact on the supply and diversity of specialty crops in West Virginia.
4. Partnerships with USDA-NRCS has been created and strengthened through the course of this grant. District Conservationists are interested in high tunnel production and are seeking training.

Performance Target Outcomes

Performance target outcome for service providers narrative:

Outcomes

A 2007 survey of 35 vendors from seven of the largest farmers’ markets in West Virginia revealed that fewer than 6% (2) used high tunnels while 25% (9) use plastic mulch and 29% (10) use row covers. The majority of respondents expressed an interest in season extension technology. In 2012, a similar survey of select farmers’ markets has revealed approximately 50% of 25 farmers’ market vendors use high tunnels for specialty crop production with nearly 67% of vendors using some form of season extension technology (e.g., row covers low tunnels, etc.). This represents a major change in best management practices for growers in West Virginia. The trend line indicates more adoption of season extension tools for specialty crop production in West Virginia.

USDA-NRCS launched a season extension program to demonstrate the use of high tunnels for specialty crop producers in 2010. Over 4000 high tunnels have been funded or constructed across the United States through the Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative during the last 2 years. West Virginia is one of several cooperating states in the Seasonal High Tunnel Initiative, and this project provided timely education to enable growers to take advantage of this program. Over 100 West Virginia specialty crop growers have been approved to receive NRCS cost-share funding since 2010. An additional 50 high tunnels have been constructed since 2006 without cost-share assistance (Figure 1).

This SARE professional development project could not have been active at a better time. Nascent growers are coming on line for high tunnel production by the dozens in West Virginia. There is a great demand for a range of information related to high tunnel production. We now have a nucleus of 12 extension and grower-educators who are shepherding these new high tunnel producers through successful crop production. Also, educational resource material created through this grant has been invaluable for training new growers. Ten high tunnel fact sheets and 5 PowerPoint presentations have been created from 2007-2012. Five hands-on, season extension workshops per year have been conducted from 2009-2012 in West Virginia. In addition, two season extension educational training events were conducted per year (2010-2012) exclusively by the grower-educators. Attendance at season extension educational events totaled more than 500 new and established West Virginia growers.

All of the twelve extension and grower-educator participants of the professional development project have constructed at least one high tunnel and have assisted many other growers with decisions about high tunnel construction, production and management. Grower and extension educator surveys conducted from 2011-2012 have revealed 90% of 92 farmer participants would or have changed production practices based on results from season extension research and outreach. High tunnel construction has increased in West Virginia 15 fold since 2007 (Figure 1). While nearly 66% of these high tunnels have been cost-share contracts with the USDA-NRCS Seasonal High Tunnel Program, approximately 50 high tunnels have been constructed independent of this program. Generally speaking, most USDA programs are demand driven. Making growers aware of the benefits of season extension technology has increased inquiries into grant and other support programs for season extension technology.

Additional Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

The SARE Professional Development Project has had significant accomplishments for West Virginia producers:

1. A critical mass of educators has been created to assist new high tunnel season extension.
2. Resource materials have been created and are being used to train new and existing high tunnel producers.
3. Adoption of high tunnel production has markedly increased and has had an impact on the supply and diversity of specialty crops in West Virginia.
4. Partnerships with USDA-NRCS has been created and strengthened through the course of this grant. District Conservationists are interested in high tunnel production and are seeking training.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

The SARE Professional Development Project has synchronized very well with other projects we have started in West Virginia. For example, our program on “growing growers” focused on low-cost season extension tools. The professional development project had already helped train growers and some of our estension personnel to assist with this project. A Specialty Crop Block Grant was received by one of our collaborators and grower-educator to focus on constructing low-cost season extenders. To date, this project has constructed 8 high tunnels in various counties in southern West Virginia. The Farm to School program is blossoming in WV. High tunnels are scale and temporal-appropriate tools for this program. All grower-educators and many other high tunnel growers are participating in this program. Some of our newest growers are participating in a high tunnel cover crop project. These growers have been assisted by output from the professional development project.

Future Recommendations

The next step for season extension professional development is to look at a systems approach for cropping the major cash crop groups within high tunnels: small fruits, annual warm season vegetables, annual cool season vegetables, herbs and cut flowers. Each of these crop groups have unique questions such as high tunnel design, irrigation management, temperature management and cultivar types. The next phase of professional development projects should focus on these areas. Growers and extension personnel need more training as this technology continues to expand across the Northeast and the United States.

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.