From Seed to Sale: Market-Driven High Tunnel Production Education for West Virginia Agricultural Providers

Progress report for ENE20-163

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2020: $112,771.00
Projected End Date: 06/01/2023
Grant Recipient: West Virginia University
Region: Northeast
State: West Virginia
Project Leader:
Lisa Jones
West Virginia University
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Project Information

Summary:

Problem & Justification:

The Guyan and Monongahela Conservation Districts have over 150 new high tunnel producers.  Most of these growers have not found the most efficient or profitable crop selections for local markets. Moreover, the growers are not organized into cohesive producer or marketing groups. There is a viable market for winter leafy greens in West Virginia based on the results from a previous SARE Partnership Project. Training a team of USDA-NRCS, Extension and Agricultural Science personnel who interact with high tunnel producers in both districts will result in expanded winter leafy green production and stronger grower organization.  The training program in these two conservation districts will serve as a template for further training across West Virginia.

Solution & Approach:

We will train a team of educators, service providers, and grower learning partners to guide new specialty crop high tunnel growers on production and marketing of winter leafy greens in two conservation districts. Asset mapping will determine specific capacity and market opportunities within each district. Creation of agricultural leaders through leadership and cooperative training programs will be incorporated into the production and marketing training. This professional development project will connect new growers with USDA-NRCS personnel, Agriculture Extension and Agricultural Science instructors to create a coalition of learners and trainers who will expand winter production and marketing of leafy greens.

Milestones:

Building on the output from complementary SARE grant projects in West Virginia during the past 10 years, we will create an education and training program within each conservation district.  The Monongahela District will increase the size of their marketing cooperative as a result of this project while growers in the Guyan District will form a new producer cooperative within 1 year of the completion of this project. Growers will be trained by the participants in this project on Best Management Practices for winter leafy green production and marketing. By the end of the professional development project 4 additional growers within each targeted conservation district will be growing and marketing winter leafy greens. Connections between producers and Agricultural Science faculty and students will be established to create a new generation of food producers in each district. Twelve Agriculture Service Providers within each district who received training on winter leafy green high tunnel production and marketing will use the skills and resources acquired through the training to establish eight total new winter leafy green producers that matches market demand within the districts or marketing region.

Performance Target:

USDA-NRCS personnel, West Virginia University Extension, West Virginia State University Extension, and Agricultural Science Instructors will join with grower learning partners in 2 Conservation Districts in West Virginia for collaborative learning. The project will identify regional assets, train 30 service providers to provide advice or demonstration on winter high tunnel leafy green production and marketing to 100 farmers, increasing their knowledge, while establishing 8 new producers, and increasing soil sample submissions by 50 producers.

Introduction:

The Guyan and Monongahela Conservation Districts within West Virginia have a significant number of new and inexperienced high tunnel specialty crop producers. The Guyan region is in southwest West Virginia and has the potential to produce a significant quantity of fresh produce during the winter season. The Monongahela District is a northern, higher elevation district with an existing small producer cooperative and numerous high tunnels. Both regions have relatively similar demographics being mostly rural with access to urban markets including a higher education institution employer. Previous high tunnel workshops and consultations with growers in each district have revealed some of the significant limitations to expanded local food production. Growers have identified specific production problems such as fertilization, crop selection and sequential scheduling in addition to market identification and access as major limitations to productivity (L. Jett, 2019). The USDA-NRCS and West Virginia University Extension have partnered within each region to provide 1-2 training events per year, but a more focused, hands-on and interactive training program is needed. Both districts, although separated by over 200 miles of hills and valleys, have similar problems and opportunities which can be addressed with an effective professional development project. For example, the grower cooperative in the Monongahela District is a producer and marketing model for the Guyan District. The cooperative needs more growers within its own region but has become a viable organization for group marketing and education.

Surveys and conversations with the District Conservationists have revealed that high tunnel crop growers in both regions are not using the high tunnel structures for winter production. We believe there is a strong demand for winter leafy greens in both regions of the state for winter farmers markets, CSA’s, local restaurants, correctional facilities, school districts and hospitals.  Winter leafy greens can be a challenge since they cannot be inventoried or stored.  Therefore, calibration with demand is very important.

 A previous SARE Partnership grant in West Virginia has successfully identified Best Management Practices for year-round leafy green production for institutional sales to hospitals and schools. Both West Virginia University Extension Educators and USDA-NRCS staff have close interactions with most high tunnel specialty crop producers in both districts. We are proposing a more detailed, interactive training with Extension, NRCS and select, hand-picked grower learning partners and Agricultural Science faculty who will be educators, leaders and mentors for other growers.

The lack of winter produce such as leafy greens is a missed opportunity for many Guyan and Monongahela growers to increase their net farm income while providing quality food for their communities. In West Virginia, there is research-based data for profitable high tunnel crop selections (Jett, 2017). Uniform adoption of Best Management Practices such as crop selection and scheduling for year-round production and marketing has not been uniformly established.  The Monongahela Conservation District has one producer cooperative in which all members use high tunnels for production. The cooperative is small (<10 members) and has difficulty in meeting the strong market demand for winter leafy greens. The nucleus of growers within this cooperative is comprised of highly dedicated leaders and producers who can serve as educators or advisors for the Guyan District which lacks a producer cooperative and cohesion among its numerous high tunnel growers. We will incorporate leadership training for the grower co-learners in each district of this project to expand the number of farmer leaders and organizers. 

Based on asset mapping in each district, we will establish the capacity and demand for winter leafy greens. The Marketready Producer Training Program will be incorporated into each training curriculum. Winter production is challenging, but previous SARE-funded research has identified optimal cultivars, plant density, planting dates, fertilization, pest management and harvesting practices for many leafy green crops. Based on Dr. Jett’s research results, leafy green yields per square foot and per month are known and will be used to establish the optimum number of producers per district or marketing region.

This research can be provided to USDA personnel, WVU Extension Educators, WVSU Ag. Agents and specific growers in each region who will serve as leaders and educators for other growers in each district. Surveys have also revealed an interest in maintaining soil health within the high tunnel. The WVU Soil Testing Lab receives less than 30 samples per year from high tunnel producers in the Guyan District (Basden, 2019). A previous SARE cover crop project in West Virginia, “Evaluation and Demonstration of Cover Crops for Specialty Crop Production Systems in West Virginia: High Tunnels and Open-Field Systems” identified the benefits of cover crops within high tunnels. Expanded use of WVU soil testing services including organic matter and soluble salt testing will be encouraged among the trainees. This Professional Development Project will serve as a model for other districts in West Virginia.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Zachary Perry (Educator and Researcher)

Educational Approach

Educational approach:

The first 6-9 months of the project will involve asset mapping and surveying within each district to identify high tunnels, commercial greenhouses, farm supply stores, commercial kitchens/copackers, grocery stores, farmers’ markets, restaurants, schools, correctional facilities and hospitals, which are willing to purchase local food. WVU Extension Agents and Educators who are members of the Extension Local Foods and Horticulture Team will assist with collecting data. An accurate quantification of retail and wholesale demand for winter greens will be determined
before initiating training in Fall 2020.

For training in each region, the training group will include the USDA-NRCS District Conservationist (DC) and 5-10 field staff; WVU Agriculture Extension Agents and Educators from counties in the district; members of the WVU Extension Local Foods and Horticulture Team; West Virginia State University Agriculture Agents affiliated with the districts; Agricultural Science Instructors within each district; 4-6 established and innovative grower learning partners and 4-6 students. Each DC will choose the field staff and have input on growers who will be co-learners in the
program. The West Virginia Department of Agriculture has hired a Horticulture Specialist that will work with high tunnel growers in southern West Virginia. This individual will be both a trainer and trainee within the program. At least one grower educator from the 2008 SARE PDP Grant will serve as an instructor for this training. Four successful high tunnel leafy green producers: grower-educators Joyce Shafer, Terry Hudson, Tommye Rafes and Mary Oldham will assist with training. A listserv among trainees will be created and used to communicate with other members.
New names will be added to the listserv as the trainers conduct their own educational programs and farm visits.

Training will be a combination of hands-on learning at farms, in-classroom lectures and demonstrations, webinars as
well as one-on-one interactions. The focus of the training is winter season leafy green production. Our hypothesis is
that if growers can conquer production and marketing in the off-season, year-round marketing will ensue, filling the
overall void in local food throughout the year. Topics which will be covered include: soil health, nutrient management, irrigation management, cultivar selection, sequential planting, whole farm planning, cooperative development, leafy green IPM, temperature/humidity
management, supplemental lighting and heating, harvest and postharvest handling, food safety packaging and marketing. Marketready Producer Training developed by Dr. Tim Woods, University of Kentucky will be incorporated into the curriculum. Two members of the Preston Grower Cooperative in the Monongalia District will be trainers on cooperative formation and management for growers in the Guyan District. Agricultural Science programs will host some educational training related to transplant production.

Training participants will be surveyed after each training event. The West Virginia High Tunnel Manual will be provided to each trainee as a hard copy and digital resource. In the Monongahela District, WVU high tunnels will be used for demonstration of winter leafy green production. In the Guyan District, one or more of the grower-educators will host demonstration trials each year.

No educational activities have been conducted at this time due to the ongoing pandemic.

Farm operations have been identified for demonstrations in the Spring once our event activity ban is lifted. Some crops have been established for Spring and Summer on-farm demonstrations.  

Milestones

Milestone #1 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

30 farmers and service providers participate in asset mapping: surveying will happen within each district to identify high tunnels, commercial greenhouses, farm supply stores, commercial kitchens/copackers, grocery stores, farmers’ markets, restaurants, schools, correctional facilities and hospitals, which are willing to purchase local food. A spreadsheet is developed in the process, and participants begin to use it.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
6
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
30
Proposed Completion Date:
December 1, 2020
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

An initial survey of all high tunnel growers across West Virginia has been completed. There are also multiple working asset maps that have been developed to track the information for this milestone. 

Additional work will continue around this milestone in the coming year to receive more input from farmers and service providers to have the most accurate and timely information. 

Milestone #2 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

Using the resources identified in the asset mapping completed by the Fall of 2020, one training (hands-on learning at farms, in-classroom lectures and demonstrations, webinars as well as one-on-one interactions) event per month will commence from August 2020 through Spring 2023 in the Conservation Districts with 30 Agriculture Service Providers, growers, and Agricultural Science faculty. Participants complete surveys to measure knowledge change from the trainings in the following topics related to winter leafy greens: soil health, nutrient management, irrigation management, cultivar selection, sequential planting, whole farm planning, cooperative development, leafy green IPM, temperature/humidity management, supplemental lighting and heating, harvest and post-harvest handling, food safety packaging and Market Ready Producer Training.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
6
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
30
Proposed Completion Date:
March 1, 2023
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, hands-on workshops have not been conducted yet for the program.

Milestone #3 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

20 Agriculture Service Providers, including USDA-NRCS, WVU Agriculture Extension Agents and WVSU Agents, and Grower learner Partners complete surveys which indicate an increase in skill, knowledge and contact with high tunnel growers and production and marketing practices.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
6
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
20
Proposed Completion Date:
March 1, 2023
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, hands-on workshops have not been conducted yet for the program, so no participant survey data has been collected yet.

Milestone #4 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

6 established and innovative grower learning partners gain 6 student interns via Agricultural Science instructors who facilitate high tunnel production in each district by hosting educational trainings, and connecting growers to schools.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
6
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
30
Proposed Completion Date:
March 1, 2023
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

We hope to have Agricultural Science instructor and student involvement starting in Fall 2021 when schools are having face-to-face classes.

Milestone #5 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

10 growers join the high tunnel educational listserv each year.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
30
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
30
Actual number of farmer beneficiaries who participated:
72
Proposed Completion Date:
March 1, 2023
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

This high tunnel listserv was created in 2020. It started with an initial 112 participants and as of January 2021 has 184 grower emails.

Milestone #6 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

Service Provider trainees will receive a High Tunnel Leafy Green Production Manual which will include planting schedules for specific leafy green crops. Agricultural service provider trainees will receive a complete set of resource materials including fact sheets, guides, videos, PowerPoint presentations and case studies to share with farmers to further train, advise, and consult within their district or region.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
6
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
30
Proposed Completion Date:
October 1, 2021
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

Materials will be given out later in 2021 when we begin workshops. 

Milestone #7 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

25 soil samples will be submitted by high tunnel producers in each district and results will be interpreted. Follow up surveys completed 3-6 months after trainings will indicate that 50% of growers used soil test results to make soil management decisions in their high tunnels.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
50
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
30
Actual number of farmer beneficiaries who participated:
16
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
1
Proposed Completion Date:
March 1, 2023
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

So far 16 soil samples have been taken to test for electrical conductivity and an organic matter analysis for trainee participants.

Milestone #8 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

The Preston Growers Cooperative will increase membership by 4 growers by the completion of this project. In the Guyan District, 4 new producers will grow and learn how to market cooperatively from the Preston Growers Cooperative.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
8
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
15
Proposed Completion Date:
March 1, 2023
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

Growers in the Guyan District have been identified as potential members for a grower group.

Milestone #9 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

12 agricultural Service Providers will have worked to establish 8 new producers of winter leafy greens by the completion of the project. The Agricultural Service Providers will help the new growers to track the number of buyers and sales records over time to evaluate whether they are meeting market demand.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
8
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
12
Proposed Completion Date:
March 1, 2023
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, hands-on workshops have not been conducted yet for the program.

Milestone Activities and Participation Summary

Educational activities and events conducted by the project team:

16 Consultations

Participants in the project’s educational activities:

1 NRCS
16 Farmers/ranchers

Performance Target Outcomes

Performance Target Outcomes - Service Providers

Target #1

Target: number of service providers who will take action to educate/advise farmers:
30
Target: actions the service providers will take:

30 agricultural service providers will provide advice or demonstration on winter high tunnel leafy green production and marketing to 100 farmers, increasing their knowledge.

Target: number of farmers the service providers will educate/advise:
100

Target #2

Target: number of service providers who will take action to educate/advise farmers:
12
Target: actions the service providers will take:

12 Agricultural Service Providers will work to establish 8 new winter leafy green producers matching market demand.

Target: number of farmers the service providers will educate/advise:
8

Target #3

Target: number of service providers who will take action to educate/advise farmers:
30
Target: actions the service providers will take:

50 High tunnel producers will submit soil samples as a result of working with agricultural service providers.

Target: number of farmers the service providers will educate/advise:
50

Additional Project Outcomes

1 Grant applied for that built upon this project
1 Grant received that built upon this project
$60,000.00 Dollar amount of grant received that built upon this project
1 New working collaboration
Additional Outcomes Narrative:

Due to the increased interest in the use of high tunnels by producers around the state and the need for USDA NRCS staff to understand how to better support these growers, a $60,000 grant from NRCS has been awarded for additional service provider education in tandem with the SARE PD grant. This grant will support additional workshops surrounding water quality topics for high tunnel producers.

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.