Establishing the Value of Flower Companions in Cucurbits

Progress report for FNC18-1122

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2018: $7,500.00
Projected End Date: 02/28/2020
Grant Recipient: Genuine Faux Farm
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
Rob Faux
Genuine Faux Farm
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Project Information

Description of operation:

The Genuine Faux Farm is a family-owned diversified farm that has been in operation since 2004. The farm produces certified organic vegetables for a Community Supported Agriculture share program, local restaurants and local retirement communities. The farm includes turkeys and broiler chickens as well as a flock of 100 laying hens.

The farm has been certified organic since 2007 and has been working on finding efficient ways to intercrop since 2006. We have been working on including cover crops since 2009 and developing permanent pollinator habitat since the farm's inception.

Summary:

Most cucurbits rely heavily on pollinator services to produce sufficient yield for a profitable operation. Many monocropping designs rely only on the attraction of the cucurbit flowers to bring pollinators to the field. This study is based on the hypothesis that intercropping plants within the cucurbit production system will increase pollinator services and thus, increase yield. This farm has shown "proof of concept" that non-cash crop plantings can result in higher yields without significant cost increase. However, it has not been shown that these changes are season independent. A study with a control plot versus a treatment plot would provide evidence that there is season independent difference.

This study hopes to provide evidence that a diverse cropping system in not only possible from a practice and profit standpoint, but it is also beneficial to threatened pollinator populations.

Project Objectives:
  1. Design an on-farm research project that is a simple control/treatment with two time replications (two seasons).
  2. Establish differences in yield for cucurbits depending on the presence, or lack, of pollinator attracting companion plants.
  3. Determine if there is a difference in pollinator presence between the control and treatment.
  4. Determine if there is improved survival for young cucurbit plants.
  5. Establish cost and labor differences between the two planting methods.
  6. Share results through field days or conference presentations. One opportunity could be with Practical Farmers of Iowa and another could be with the Iowa Organic Association.

Research

Materials and methods:

General Farm Strategy

Plots on the farm are 200' x 60' oriented 200' in the East-West direction.  There are nine equivalent plots in the rotation.  Cucurbits are scheduled on a 2-2-3-2 year split to avoid an every other year pattern.  Ground is primarily flat with a heavier loam soil (Tripoli and Oran Loam).  Beds are based on the spacing between the wheels of a Case 45 hp tractor with a shared wheel track between beds.  Each plot on the farm is surrounded by a grass/clover buffer that also serves as the driving track for equipment.  The farm is certified organic and has a 35 foot buffer around the edge of the farm and a road to the south.  Corn and soybean row-crop fields surround the farm otherwise.  The target markets for produce include a long-season CSA program, local retirement services, local retail and local restaurants.  Variety within crop types fits both the market and approach of the farm, though an anchor variety or type is usually included.

Plot Selection Strategy

The control plot was selected on the basis of its distance from other plots that were likely to have additional pollinator services within the existing crop rotation.  The intent of the project is to determine if proximal location of pollinator supporting plants impacts production of the cucurbits.  Therefore, it was necessary to select the plot that had the fewest identifiable sources for pollinator support with respect to cucurbits.  The treatment plot required no such consideration.  Both had to remain within the farm rotation plan.

Plot Plans

Each plot is capable of holding 13 beds.  For the purposes of the project, we took our planned melon field and our planned winter squash field and split each in half, this allowed us to replicate the varieties and numbers of plants without changing our overall production capacity.  In other words, we took 4 beds from our prior year's melon plot and 4 beds from our prior year's squash plot and combined them into two plots that would have 4 beds of each.  One plot included 6 beds of pollinator support plantings.  The other plots corresponding beds were kept fallow.  Beds 1,4,7,10 and 13 were either the pollinator beds or fallow beds depending on whether they were in the treatment or control plot.  Beds 2,3,5 & 6 held winter squash and beds 8,9,11 & 12 held melons.

Production Methods

All cucurbits were transplanted from starts into the field.  All pollinator support plants were seeded directly into their beds.  Germination failure requires response with transplanted pollinator support plants or reseeding.  All beds were provided with drip irrigation, though this was not used for much more than establishment and parts of late July/early August in 2018.  Cultivation was provided by a Williams Tool Bar with flex tine and squash knives.  Wet weather required significant hand weeding and hand tools and prevented mechanized cultivation during key periods.  Melons were provided with supplemental compost for fertility at transplant.

Cash Crops

The cash crops were identical between the two plots in 2018:

  • 2 beds Waltham Butternut
  • 1 bed pumpkins - Musquee de Provence and Long Island Cheese
  • 1 bed shorter season squash - Thelma Sanders (acorn type) and Spaghetti
  • 1 bed Pride of Wisconsin melon
  • 1/2 beds of the following melons: Eden's Gem, Emerald Gem, Ha'Ogen, Arava, Oka, Hearts of Gold

Pollinator Support Crops

  • borage
  • marigold, Red Marietta
  • zinnia, State Fair
  • nasturtium, Empress of India
  • chleome
  • basil, thai and lemon
  • hyssop

Watching for Pollinators

Weekly pollinator 'walks' were taken once flowers of any sort were observed in either field.  One bed was randomly chosen each week for observation and the 'walks' were planned to be no more than 5 minutes in duration to keep the task sustainable for an operating farm.  A quick weather observation and a rough count of pollinators are kept.  Any quick observations regarding types of pollinators were written as notes.

Watching for Plant Survival Rates

A quick survey of survival numbers was taken one week after transplant and at the point vines begin to 'sprawl.'

Yield Data

Count and weight was taken for all marketable fruit.  Culls were not counted in 2018, but the intent was (and is) to also count fully developed culls whose presence would indicate that a flower was successfully pollinated.  There are not plans to identify and count aborted fruit due to inadequate pollination. 

Cost and Labor Comparison

Workers recorded labor hours in the participating fields in 2018 and more detailed information will be kept in 2019 to allow the development of a full enterprise budget for comparison between the control and treatment.  Basic costs are measured as normal: seed, seed starting supplies, drip line and headers, mulch, etc.  The obvious differences include more seed and drip line for the treatment field.  Labor costs include seeding, care of seedlings, transplant, direct sow seeding, irrigation maintenance, cultivation and harvest. 

Additional Information

Weather observations include those provided in pollinator walks and data collected using the farm's weather station.  Digital photographs were used to record progress.  Standard information such as seeding dates, transplant dates, irrigation records, fertilization records and harvest records were kept per normal farm protocol.

Limiting Variables

When possible, farm work was performed in corresponding beds between the two fields within the same half-day.  Irrigation ran during the same period for both fields when it was applied.  Seedling trays were split so that half of the tray was planted in one plot and the other half in the other plot.

Research results and discussion:

Extreme Weather Conditions

Our farm was among those impacted by extremely wet weather during the growing season.  Most of the moisture came in the form of later snows in April, so is not shown in the graphic.  After a normal May, a wet June followed, making it difficult to get cultivation done in a timely fashion.  Also, there were issues with seed germination, which impacted pollinator support plant germination in the treatment plot.

  Rain at GFF
jan 2.09
feb 0.53
mar 0.15
apr 1.04
may 5.36
jun 8.51
jul 3.06
aug 8.45
sep 14.66
oct 5.08
nov 3.43

After a normal July, August provided approximately twice the normal rainfall, which was followed up by an extremely wet Fall.  Records were set for yearly rainfall in our area and this was the wettest Fall recorded as well.  A significant portion of the crops were lost due to these conditions.  Field conditions frequently prevented entry into the fields.  Many fruit breached and were lost to rot (especially melons).  The volume of loss and conditions of the fields prevented a reasonable effort to count culls.

Yield Data

The melon data can not be extrapolated to show any true results due to the high level of losses seen this year.  Many of the observed differences had more to do with 'wetter' versus 'drier' areas of field than any other factor.  The melons harvested as 'marketable' were not out of the norm for size and quality.

melons 2018 fruit weight in lbs.
Arava 31 102.2
treat 7 14.8
control 24 87.4
Eden's Gem 14 12.8
treat 14 12.8
Emerald Gem 5 5.1
treat 5 5.1
Haogen 1 2.2
treat 1 2.2
Hearts of Gold 18 34.2
treat 18 34.2
Pride of Wisconsin 58 241.8
treat 17 60.4
control 41 181.4

The winter squash/pumpkins could have had the potential to show us some results, but we can not discount the weather conditions here as well.  We are aware of sections in all beds for both plots that saw plant/fruit loss in the Fall due to wet conditions.  We provide the raw data simply for completeness.

 

winter squash/ pumpkins 2018 fruit weight in lbs.
Long Island Cheese 42 261.9
treatment 15 82.5
control 27 179.4
Musquee de Provence 39 323.3
treatment 28 225.7
control 11 97.6
Spaghetti 39 86.7
treatment 8 21.5
control 31 65.2
Thelma Sanders 245 275.8
treatment 163 179.4
control 82 96.4
Waltham 238 556.6
treatment 167 416.6
control 71 140

Pollinator Presence

There was minimal difference in pollinator presence through July.  No conclusion can be made from this since most of the pollinator support plants in the treatment field had to be replanted and were not blooming until August in most cases.  More pollinators were observed in the second week of August for the treatment plot than the control plot.  It should also be noted that we observed lower than normal pollinator presence on the farm until the second week of August (regardless of the location on the farm).  We have noted this decline continuously since the farm's beginnings in 2004 despite efforts to increase habitat.

Crop Dates

Cucurbit seed start date: May 3

Cucurbit transplant date: Jun 1 (melon), Jun 4 (squash)

Pollinator seeding 1: Jun 1

Pollinator seeding 2: Jun 28 (supplement with transplants leftover in trays for other fields)

Harvest Melon: Aug 27 - Sep 10

Harvest Squash: Sep 24 - Sep28

Cost Observations

Seed cost for pollinator support plantings (borage, etc) is minimal, as are any other related direct cost.  The labor seeding (and even reseeding) was also negligible.  The additional cost that had some impact was the time spent cultivating and weeding the non-cash crop beds.  If the treatment is going to show a favorable result, it needs to produce enough additional crop to pay for this labor and/or this process would need to be made more efficient.  Typically, a heavy seeding of marigolds, zinnias and borage provide sufficient canopy that only early cultivation is necessary.  This year was an exception with poor germination rates.

Changes for Year 2 of the Project

The trends are clearly showing that our area of the country will continue to be (on average) wetter than it has been.  Our farm is particularly susceptible to wet years and we continue to take steps to address the situation in general.  However, there are specific alterations to our growing plan we are making for 2019 that relate to this project.

  1. Hilling planting beds
  2. Paper mulch all long season cucurbit rows
  3. Seed some pollinator support beds earlier (marigold and zinnia)
  4. Place more transplants in row with cucurbits
  5. Move transplant date up on cucurbits and prepare to cover if cold weather afterwards

Hilling - while we are not prepared to create shaped beds, we do believe that we need to implement hilling on all of our planting beds from this point on for our farm.  We have had some success with this with lettuce, broccoli, zucchini and peppers.  A couple of inches in soil height can make a significant difference, though it still did NOT save many of our crops this year.

Paper Mulch - we are noticing that Weedguard Plus is developing a better paper mulch product and we saw success using it for our tomatoes in 2018 despite the wetter than usual weather.  Despite the addition of better cultivation tools on our farm, it is clear we cannot count on having even brief windows for cultivation.  Even if the paper mulch breaks down earlier than desired, we need to reduce the labor load on the farm during the June/July period.  We believe we can use our S-tine cultivator for the wheel track weed control and wheel hoes for close to the paper edge with better results.

Earlier Seeding - as with all of the other things we are looking to do differently, this seems good in theory.  However, we had significant germination problems throughout our farm in May and early June.  Many row croppers in our area also found a very compressed planting window in 2018.  We did plant zinnias, marigolds, borage, etc in other locations at an earlier date and found poor germination then as well.   If things are not going to germinate, it doesn't matter what we intend. 

It makes sense that starting zinnias and marigolds earlier will provide a longer flower window for these annuals.  Both are known to produce well for an extended period.  Borage, on the other hand, has a definite peak bloom period and we do not want that to happen before the cucurbits are ready.  We anticipate keeping the borage planting date even with the cucurbit transplant date.

In row transplants - we have used flowers to mark varietal breaks in beds as well as to mark replications in research trials.  In an effort to insure some support plant presence in 2019, we will increase the numbers of these transplants in the cucurbit rows.  We will use plants, such as non-vining nasturtiums, that do not compete adversely with the cucurbits.

Move cucurbit transplant date earlier - early June has been our long-standing goal for cucurbit transplant.  Trends for recent years show us drier early spring, wetter late spring and wetter falls.  While we recognize every year could be different, it is foolish to see a trend and not respond to it.  We feel it would be safe to put our long-season cucurbits in between May 20 and 25.  So, we are moving our goal transplant date for 2019 to this period, realizing that conditions may force us to wait until our normal planting (or after).

Participation Summary
1 Farmer participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

6 Consultations
2 Tours
2 Webinars / talks / presentations
1 Other educational activities: Two students came to farm for a filming project that included information on supporting pollinators.

Participation Summary:

8 Farmers
1 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Activities included:

  • Hosted tour Waverly-Shell Rock Junior High School
  • Hosted tour University of Northern Iowa Capstone class
  • Class presentation Wartburg College Environmental Science class
  • Class presentation University of Northern Iowa Capstone class
  • Film project, UNI students

The farm tours occurred in September and October, making it difficult to combine visual results with the project.  However, significant time was spent discussing the ideas of intercropping and providing support for pollinators.  Both class presentations featured this project and the principles surrounding it.  The Wartburg class presentation specifically requested a focus on the on-farm research we do.  While none of these projects focused only on this project, the project did feature prominently, despite unsatisfying results for 2018.

Learning Outcomes

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

At this time, we can make no conclusions about this project and the questions we posed that led to the project.  We are hopeful for a better weather year in 2019 so we can analyze worthwhile results.

From a personal well-being perspective, the presence of flowering plants combined with healthy cucurbits does make us much more positive as we work in the fields that include the intercropping.  Workers and the farmers did tend to prefer the treatment field to the control.  It is also well-documented that providing habitat for pollinators is beneficial to their health. 

Project Outcomes

Success stories:

One row crop farmer, who also grows pumpkins, began to include zinnias as a border planting and center of field planting for his pumpkin patch after discussing this project with us.

A CSA farmer had added in row flowers to mark variety changes in row and placed similar flowers at the ends of all rows in response to our efforts.

After a presentation at the Practical Farmers of Iowa conference (prior to the inception of this particular SARE project), several farmers have consulted with us about ideas for integrating annual flowering plants into their production plots.

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.