Investigating the Relative Effectiveness of Seedlings versus Direct Seeding Pumpkins for Earliest and Biggest Yield on a Community Farm

Final report for FNC16-1035

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2016: $7,500.00
Projected End Date: 01/30/2018
Grant Recipient: Cable Community Farm
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Katie Hancock
Cable Community Farm
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Project Information

Description of operation:

The Cable Community Farm is an all-volunteer nonprofit organization that was founded in 2013 with a mission to grow food and build community. Situated on 35 acres in northern Wisconsin, the community farm began with a Community Garden, providing access to garden space for 25 gardeners. Through charitable donations and support from the local business community, the Cable Community Farm now grows fresh produce for the Cable Area Food Shelf and has a Community Orchard, Community Vineyard, and a Community Chicken Coop. The community farm hosts educational events and sustainable farm tours throughout the growing season.

Summary:

We set out to compare two one-acre plots of pumpkins, one planted with seedlings and one direct seeded, in order to determine which method would lead to earliest and largest yields in our northern climate. We planned to adopt an agritourism model to generate revenue and inform the public about sustainable agricultural methods.

In May 2016, we started 800 pumpkin seedlings, 6 different varieties, using heat mats and grow lights. Germination rates were between 78% and 98%, with four out of six varieties having over a 97% germination rate. The seedlings grew rapidly. Seedlings were “hardened off” the last week of May and planted on 5/31. The direct seed plot was planted on 6/1, using the exact same spacing and mulching. We used a drip irrigation system, although there was plenty of rain so it was used infrequently. The seedlings were slow to take off due to the relatively cool weather. The direct seeded plants emerged within a week. In mid-June, several deer jumped over the fence and damaged approximately 50% of the crop. We fixed the fence by extending it upwards. In late June, several deer broke through the fence and destroyed the remaining crop. The plants never recovered. They were stunted and did not produce any fruit. We did learn from our mistakes and we were eager to revisit the project in 2017.

In April 2017, we installed deer-proof fencing around the entire growing space.  In May 2017, we again started 6 different varieties of pumpkins, with a total of 720 plants, using heat mats and grow lights.  Seedlings were moved to the field and covered with agribon to “harden off” before being planted on 6/1.  The second plot was direct seeded on 6/2.  It was a cold and wet June, and the transplants showed little growth until the end of July.  The direct seeded plants were slow to emerge and remained small.  Harvest began in early September with most of the crop appearing smaller than expected.  The transplanted seedlings produced a total of 115 pumpkins and the direct seeded plants produced a total of 158 pumpkins, numbers which are too small to make any statistically significant conclusions.  There was difference in time to maturity between the two plots.  Pumpkin sales generated approximately $600 for the Cable Community Farm.  Sustainable farm tours were held weekly.

 

Project Objectives:

We had two objectives for the project, one technical and one economic:

  1. Technical: is it better to use seedlings to transplant or direct seed in terms of early ripening and overall productivity?
  2. Economic: how can we provide locally grown, organic pumpkins for our community and generate revenue for our nonprofit organization using an agritourism model?

Unfortunately, we were not able to assess either question adequately due to the lack of production. We did tabulate the labor hours required for both methods of growing pumpkins. The labor hours for the seedlings was 54 in 2016 and 34 in 2017.  The labor hours for the direct seeded plot was 14 hours in 2016 and 10 hours in 2017 up to the point when the plots were treated in the same manner. Both plots received equal water and sunlight.

In 2017, the direct seeded plants did produce more fruit than those started as seedlings, but the numbers were too small to make meaningful interpretation of the data.  The sustainable farm tours were successful, with a total of 64 participants over the course of the summer.  Pumpkin sales generated approximately $600 for the Cable Community Farm, which was much less than anticipated due to poor production.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Riley Kaiser (Researcher)
  • Amanda Kyle (Educator)
  • Anna Bonde (Researcher)

Research

Materials and methods:

For each of the two years of the project, six varieties of pumpkin seedlings were started in late May using heat mats and grow lights.  The first year, the plants were started too early, resulting in leggy and weak plants.  The second year, the plants were started two weeks later and resulted in sturdier plants.  We chose to use a number of varieties to maximize the chances for success in our northern climate.  After the seedlings were hardened off and planted in the field, a second plot was direct seeded using the same numbers and spacing.  All plants were mulched with straw and watered with drip irrigation.  Weeding was done by hand as needed.  Due to the wet weather, there was some powdery mildew on the plants, which was treated with an organic spray.  Harvest was completed by hand and records were kept regarding the number of each variety that was harvested.

Research results and discussion:

Impacts

The first year of the project yielded no measurable results after extensive deer damage to the plants while in the field.  

The second year we installed a deer-proof fence that worked well, although it was a cool and wet growing season and most of the pumpkins did not fully mature.  The results were as follows:

                                                   Seedlings                           Direct Seed  

Howden                                            17                                       29

Connecticut Field                               32                                        41

New England Pie                               11                                        10

Winter Luxury                                    8                                         22

Lumina                                             12                                         8

Wee Be Little                                     35                                        48

Total                                               115                                       158

 

While the direct seeded pants produced more pumpkins, the numbers are too small to make any statistically significant conclusions.  However, given the fact that the seedlings took an average of 40 additional labor hours and had the extra expenses associated with the potting mix, peat pots, heat mats, and electricity, it appears that direct seeding for pumpkins is a more reasonable option.

The “pumpkin project” garnered a great deal of interest within our small, rural community. People are interested in learning how to grow local products organically. Visitors to our community farm were interested in learning about the research aspect of the project. We had over 200 visitors. The interns who worked on the project were fully immersed in the research and took pride in taking careful notes.

Accomplishments

While the first year of our project was largely unsuccessful, we did learn some valuable information that we took into account the next year. For example, the seedlings grew rapidly and were probably past their ideal time for transplanting by the time the soil was warm enough to plant. The second year, we started the seedlings two weeks later in order to produce smaller, sturdier plants to transplant to the field. In addition, a small percentage of the seedlings succumbed to wilting the first year, which was alleviated by the use of a fan the second year.  The most obvious factor leading to the minimal production the first year was that our deer fencing was inadequate and the damage from the deer was extensive. The next year, we used 7-foot-tall plastic deer fencing to enclose the entire growing area.

The educational component of the project was successful, with approximately 200 visitors each summer.  The second year, we hosted sustainable farm tours each week of the growing season, with 64 participants who had the opportunity to learn about sustainable agriculture and the research methods employed with this project.  Reports about the project were presented in a monthly e-newsletter and ocasionally on social media.  Over the course of the two years, three college interns worked on the project, both as farmers and as educators, all of whom gained hands-on experience with sustainable agriculture.

The agribusiness model of increasing revenue for the Cable Community Farm, an all-volunteer nonprofit organization, was partially successful, with approximately $600 being generated in pumpkin sales during the second year of the project.  

Participation Summary
3 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

2 Consultations
6 Published press articles, newsletters
12 Tours

Participation Summary

3 Farmers
1 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Consultation was sought from the Bayfield County UW extension horticulture agent regarding field preparation.  Consultation from a local farmer was sought regarding varieties of pumpkins to choose and best planting times.

The Cable Community Farm publishes an electronic newsletter each month that is sent to over 300 people.  The “pumpkin project” was featured in four of these, with updates about the project.  There were two articles written for the local press that mentioned the project as one of the activities at the Cable Community Farm.

During the second year of the project, the Cable Community Farm held weekly “sustainable farm tours” that were advertised through flyers, social media, and news articles.  There were 12 tours with approximately 64 participants total. The tours focused on sustainable agriculture methods for all of the projects at the Cable Community Farm, including the research regarding the pumpkins.

 

Learning Outcomes

4 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Lessons Learned:

We learned several things in the process of conducting research for this grant.  Although our data did not really help us answer the question we set out to investigate (due to extensive deer damage the first year and weather conditions the second year leading to poor crop production), we did learn the importance of close observation of the crops and the necessity of making decisions about farming practices quickly.  For example, the cold wet weather during the 2017 growing sesaon led to powdery mildew on many of our plants.  It took us longer than would have been ideal to formulate a plan of attack, which led to some plants dying before we had a chance to spray them with an organic spray.  The three interns who worked on the project, two as farmers and one as an educator, gained valuable hands-on experience with sustainable agriculture.  While we will continue to use interns on the farm, we will provide much closer supervision and support than we were able to provide on this project.

Project Outcomes

1 Grant received that built upon this project
Success stories:

We were able to leverage the grant project to gain additional support from our local energy company who provided funds to develop a map and self-guided tour of the Cable Community Farm.

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.