Determining the Biggest Bang for our (Time) Buck: Dealing with Fall Brassica Diseases in High Humidity Environments

Final report for FNE22-030

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2022: $14,198.00
Projected End Date: 06/30/2023
Grant Recipient: Hartwood Farm
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Maryellen Sheehan
Hartwood Farm
Expand All

Project Information


This project strove to test on disease prone fall brassicas if it’s cost effective to spray more frequently, if cultural control practices impact the effectiveness of fungicide application, and what is the sweet spot that strikes a balance between production practices and spray rates.

We trialed three fungicide application frequencies (high, medium/”normal,” and low) across three pest exclusion methods, two ground covers, and two plant spacings. There were four trial iterations, three with larger transplanted crops and one with smaller direct seeded brassicas. Data was collected on all input costs, time installation costs, differing scouting and spraying time costs, yields and plant health, and net sales.

We assessed qualitative and quantitative data and ran a regression analysis on the results. While we saw largely null results, there was statistical significance in using landscape fabric to cover the ground when disease pressure is high. There also were indications that spraying more frequently than our norm was not cost effective, and that row covers provided more economical plant protection than ProtekNet.

We presented this to farmers as part of informal 1:1 discussions, the 2023 NOFA-NY winter conference, and two articles in Growing for Market September and October 2023 issues. This reached a range of smaller diversified vegetable producers, including many like us growing in humid climates with more extreme weather events and a CSA-heavy market base.

Broccoli heavily infested with Alternaria
What we don't want--broccoli with heavy Alternaria infestation
Project Objectives:

The question we want to answer is what extra effort is worth putting into fall brassica disease management in damp years? Is it worth spraying after every storm, or are cultural changes or accepting some damage more cost effective? Our objectives include:

  1. Do cultural strategies impact the cost effectiveness of each spray regimen? Does a particular mix of cultural practices provide equal or better control of disease/bring higher yield?
  2. Is it cost effective to spray more frequently? Does the added time cost pay off through marketable product?
  3. Where is the sweet spot in the combination of practices/spray frequency with the highest net return?

We anticipate this trial will yield time and cost data on how many spray applications are most cost effective; which cultural controls most reduce disease; and how the two interact through measuring:

  • Cost of inputs for each treatment
  • Time each treatment takes
  • Plant health
  • Yield per treatment—marketable yield per bed foot in units/dollar value

Our hope is that combining these results into basic enterprise budgets will give our farm and others a starting point to improve fall brassica net profitability even as labor costs rise and late season growing conditions become more extreme.


Fall brassicas are a major crop family for diversified northeastern produce operations. They historically thrived in our region, and there are solid resources for general pest and disease management. However, these past years fall brassicas became more finicky. At our market, we’ve been the only grower with a consistent supply, but our cost to produce them skyrocketed, as a series of overlapping challenges has hammered our region and makes these former mainstay veggies increasingly difficult to profitably produce.

Our main disease local pressures match UVM’s 2019 survey: Alternaria and Black Rot most intensively, with lower pressure from downy/powdery mildews and head rot. The wetter, humid conditions of more intense late summer/fall weather raise these diseases’ pressure while reducing spray efficacy and opportunities to apply. Additionally, milder temperatures and later frosts encourage higher levels of insect pressure. Our immediate region experiences heavy flea beetle action (and intermittent Swede midge) making row covers essential to produce unblemished greens. Even using new covers each year, it’s apparent that sanitation alone doesn’t prevent row covers from trapping in moisture and fomenting disease. Without covers, flea beetles hit the brassicas hard, stressing out plants and creating their own openings for disease.

Because of declines in pollinator activity, most operators near us switched to spraying in late afternoon into dark, but even with adequate spray application, it’s still a tedious and quality of life reducing job for the end of the day, especially dealing with weight bags and row covers.

Finally, while more intensive spray management may work adequately to reduce the disease load, such time-consuming strategies threaten to make crop production unprofitable in northeastern states with high base labor costs. Farm employee costs in our community start at $15 to $17/hour, with an additional 25% mandated benefit and tax costs. This comes to net labor costs in the $20 to $25/hour range, which significantly alters the analysis of whether higher labor operations like spraying continue to make economic sense.

Essentially, farmers are pinched for the time to manage around an ever-growing roster of moisture-related diseases, and it’s unclear that the previous economics of management strategies remain valid. We’ve been trialing a range of cultural disease management solutions and spray mixes already on our farm, but we really want to take the time to dig in and measure to determine what is the most cost effective strategy. Is it worth killing ourselves to spray every few days, spending all that extra money on labor to get “perfect” fall crops, or is it more cost effective to maintain lower intensity management strategies and accept some level of damage and loss?

Our proposed solution is to set up a field trial to compare nine cultural disease management strategies that might further mitigate fall moisture-related plant disease against three levels of fungicide application frequency. We will measure disease pressure, input costs, labor costs, and harvest yield to examine interactions between treatments for any hint an economic sweet spot between cost, yield, and quality.

The heart of this trial is to produce a series of abbreviated enterprise budgets that help guide farmers to assess how much extra work we need to put in to increase the yields and quality of our brassicas in a rough year, and if at some point, that level of added labor becomes cost prohibitive.

Our main hoped for impact is to understand how to improve our end of the season farm productivity—do we need to prioritize spending more money for fall labor to keep spraying these crops, or is our time better spent spraying less and turning to cultural controls? Are brassicas still a profitable crop in super wet years? Is there a labor point where growing them no longer makes sense? Our goal is to spend the time to get a snapshot of what strategies other growers may want to try, as well as provide an update on budgeting for these added costs as wages increase in the region.

Finally, knowing where to most effectively reassign labor will improve quality of life for farmers. We don’t mind the hassle of crop maintenance and spraying, but only if it feels like our effort is effective to improve yields. Farming in these last wet falls, has been a slog, and we want to make sure we are at least slogging in a cost-effective manner.

Description of farm operation:

Our farm is on 70 acres in the uplands outside of Syracuse, NY, at around 1460' elevation, which makes for a humid and windy site. We have prime silt loam soils that are a bit heavy. We manage 12 acres for vegetable production, with 6 of those in cover crops each year. We typically have 4 to 5 people working on the farm (including owners) each summer season. Our main markets are a 200 member CSA and a local farmers market, but we are transitioning to more wholesale outlets. We were certified organic through 2022, and continue to use organic practices. Through this project, we were both farming full time, and additional funds to support this project came through produce sales (or equipment and supplies we had previously purchased for the operation).


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Crystal Stewart Courtens - Technical Advisor


Materials and methods:

This trial planned to test three levels of fungicide spraying frequency across nine difference cultural control strategies to assess which interactions have highest net profitability.

The spray levels tested were high (weekly prophylactic applications), moderate (applications at 2 to 3 week intervals), and low (zero to one applications).

The cultural controls ultimately tested included three exclusion methods: row cover, ProtekNet, and no covers, normal crop spacing, wide crop spacing, bare soil aisles, and landscape fabric aisles. Isolated plantings were dropped due to weather complications.

There were four iterations of the trial, all with a mix of varieties chosen to ripen over long harvest windows:

  • Zone 1—900 bed feet of cauliflower transplanted on June 29 and harvested from August 11 through September 26.
  • Zone 2—600 bed feet of heading broccoli transplanted on July 27 and harvested from September 29 through October 20.
  • Zone 3—600 bed feet of other large brassicas (sprouting broccoli, sprouting cauliflower, rutabaga) transplanted on July 27 and harvested from September 2 through October 24. (We substituted this planting for a second direct seeded zone because we were concerned the direct seeded crops were too disease resistant and we thought these crops would show more reaction to disease and pest pressure—this was when the year was still excessively dry!)
  • Zone 4—400 bed feet of daikon and watermelon radishes direct seeded on Aug 13 and harvested from October 3 through October 30.
trial zones set up for comparing row cover and other practices, over baby seedlings
Trial Zone 1 after installation in late July

Alternaria, black rot, downy and powdery mildews, and head rot are our most disease culprits.

All treatment zones were prepared by incorporating cover crops, vertical tillage after open fallow, and incorporating fertilizer (1500 to 2000 pounds/acre of Kreher’s 5-4-3) while tilling.

Large brassica iterations had 4’ white plastic mulch and were transplanted using a Waterwheel. Small brassica iterations were bed formed prior to tillage, occulated under plastic tarps for three to eight weeks, and seeded with a single row Jang.

All zones were scouted at a 7 day interval from planting through harvest. Fungicides were tank mixed as needed/compatible (with pesticides if needed for uncovered zones) and applied with an electric backpack blower.

Data collection for all treatments included:

  • Recording input costs for each zone and treatment via receipts
  • Recording time and labor costs for each zone and treatment, including installation and removal, scouting, and spraying. We used timers and paper logs.
  • Scouting logs—time taken and issues observed, spraying logs of time and mix rates, and the relative costs of pesticide inputs across treatments.
  • Harvest time, grading, and yields at harvest.
tiny malformed head of cauliflower being held
At harvest, we graded and culled unmarketable crops (here is a cauliflower from one of the low spray uncovered treatments).

To find the balance between effort and cost of varying fungicide application frequencies across cultural disease management strategies, we compared the efficacy of spray frequencies versus the labor costs of spraying and installing cultural controls, using the lens of marketable product yields.

We had initially planned to create enterprise analysis using “Veggie Compass.” However, with over 100 trial zones, we quickly realized it was too complex a data set to gain value through a full enterprise assessment. Instead we focused on assessing the additional time each treatment takes over baseline for:

  • Scouting, including time to move rock bags and row covers.
  • Spraying, including time managing covers, for each treatment.
  • Time to harvest/harvest variations over treatment zones, recorded by the harvest crew. For consistency, a single individual was in charge of harvesting each specific crop throughout the trial to most accurately capture any relative impacts of treatments on harvest speed.
  • We noted plant health and what diseases show up where on the scouting sheets. We were confident in our disease diagnosis but sent samples to the Cornell plant disease diagnostic clinic for confirmation.

Yield per treatment—marketable yield per bed foot in units and in dollars, recorded at harvest or in the wash/pack line, was the essential measurement metric to balance labor and input costs against.

We assessed our data from a farmer perspective, but also ran a regression analysis, which indicated mostly null results, but a few areas that approached statistical significance (these aligned with our farmer vibe check of the data).

Research results and discussion:

We have previously used all of these cultural controls already on our operation. Our goal in this trial was to test and assess them individually against varying spray intensities to determine their relative impact.

Results of pest covers:

Row Cover—10 of the 12 trial spray iterations included treatment zones with and without row cover after the initial two to three weeks of critical establishment.

ProtekNet—our 2021 fall lettuce trial (for aster yellows control) showed better airflow, plant health, and yield over row cover. Additionally, we can spray through the netting without removal, unlike row cover. Given its price point, we were unsure if it’s worth using on lower value/wider spaced crops. For all trial iterations, a zone was sealed under ProtekNet, with scouting and spraying happening through the netting. We hope to assess whether the added cost of the netting is offset by plant health and reduced application times.

Uncovered—due to pest pressure, we haven’t grown uncovered fall brassicas for almost a decade. Part of this trial was to see if improved organic pesticides (Entrust and Evergreen) could allow for uncovered production.

  • Statistically, we did not see a huge efficacy difference between the three cover options in terms of disease reduction. But surprisingly, plantings without row cover had greater net return per unit, and were more cost effective than we thought. It was significantly faster to plant, cultivate, and spray on iterations with no row cover or netting (duh!). Since so much of our variable cost comes from labor, saving time by not having to deal with moving anything did offset the lower yields of uncovered plantings.
  • We observed that on a cost basis, for most zones the more expensive netting did not pay for itself relative to row cover, even factoring in that row cover is only used once and the netting many times. Scouting and spraying through the net was faster, but installation time costs were higher. There was an exception as direct seeded brassicas did have higher net yield and income under the more ventilated Proteknet. It was unclear if this result was because the netting itself is less effective, or because the row cover we use covers 3 beds at a time (rather than 1 with the netting), thus reducing labor management costs.
  • Also on a cost/unit basis, open uncovered trials did not perform terribly, as long as the variety selection was a shorter season cultivar, and there were reasonable numbers of spray applications. However, open/uncovered beds did reduce overall yield (they just remained most profitable because their costs were so low), and should thus be further assessed. Open plantings generally outperformed netting on a cost/unit basis, while netting performed better on a total yield basis.
  • We felt like our status quo—row cover—remained the best default option mixing some protection with cost/labor effectiveness. However, we feel like based on the uncovered zone data, we should remove covers earlier and just add in a pesticide application. Netting however still has appeal to us for direct seeded crops, pending further trials.
image showing row cover and netting meeting and held down with rocks
Row cover (left) and ProtekNet (right), anchored by sand bags. (Yes, we do use a lot of bags due to high winds, especially at junction points, which does impact the labor costs.)

Plant spacing.

We normally transplant two rows per bed 24" apart, at in-row distances of 14” for broccoli and 19” for cauliflower (and 1” for radishes). We trialed both 2” spacing in radishes, and 19”/24” for broccoli and cauliflower to assess if the cost to use extra space pays off in terms of disease control and yield.

  • We observed no yield differences in our wider spaced zones. Our suspicion is that is because we had already widened to optimal spacing in past years, additional spacing provided no additional benefit.


The three large brassica iterations each include an aisle section “mulched” with landscape fabric as opposed to bare ground to explore if the landscape fabric keeps water from splashing pathogens up from the soil. (Aisle landscape fabric is uneconomic for small brassicas.)

  • At the highest level of disease pressure, landscape fabric was the difference between getting some yield and nothing. It was also the only statistically significant conclusion in this trial.
  • In our Alternaria apocalypse trial field, landscape fabric correlated so strongly with higher yields and profitability that it altered the statistical significance of landscape fabric across all four trial fields. In a wet, disease-y year, it makes economic sense to prioritize using fabric.
  • We only used new landscape fabric, as we were unsure if there might be impact from disease carry over if using older fabric. This might change the economics of the fabric in future years, if it's vectoring disease.


For harvest convenience/irrigation, we plant fall crops in larger blocks. Starting in 2021, we began switching to a rotational system of smaller blocks of the most disease prone crops and planned for each large brassica iteration to include a zone with an isolated planting of one bed at a distance from any other brassicas. 

  • Due to an excessively dry start to the summer and all our irrigation mains and headers in dire need elsewhere, we were unable to plant the isolation zones.
  • Interestingly, all the zones were hit at the same time with Alternaria (so it didn’t seem that distance matters). However, later plantings of broccoli that were touching our most infested zone (2) did not show much infection. This leads us to wonder to what extent timing has on disease pressure over proximity.
Zone 3 in early September, spraying as disease pressure mounts
Zone 3 in early September, spraying as disease pressure mounts. You can see that some of the sprouting broccoli heads are showing some bolting/discoloration. After stripping the plants, they started to produce well without any issues for over six more weeks.

The three fungicide frequency application intensities trialed across the cultural controls are:

  • High—every 7 to 9 days, and after every rainstorm over ¾”, from the week after planting until harvest.
  • Moderate—every 14 to 21 days, down to 10 days if scouting suggests. Our norm, largely due to weather conditions making additional applications feel like a waste of time.
  • Low/No Spray—zero to one timed spray application as scouting suggests. In these past years, because of rain, some fall brassicas received zero applications and still produced, which makes us question if any organic fungicide application is actually effective against very damp weather?

Our intent was not to trial individual product efficacy, but rather investigate if overall frequency of fungicide application impacts the cultural controls. We used a rotation of Howler, OSO, Carb-O-Nator, and Cueva from planting until harvest began (Zones 1 and 3), the Alternaria apocalypse wiped out the crop (Zone 2), or the crop was mature enough control was no longer necessary (Zone 4). All applications include the sticker-spreader Miller Nu-Film P.

  • We did not see clear efficacy of any products against Alternaria (and had minimal black rot, thanks to the dry summer). It was faster to spray on iterations without row cover, but we found the row cover easier to manage than the netting (thanks to it being wider, cheaper so we weren't paranoid about damaging it, and something we have more practice at handling).
  • There was no added benefit to spraying more in 2022, either in terms of net yield or net income.
  • Our data showed that spraying more than our normal two-week interval did not pay off with higher yields. Net income was slightly better actually the less we sprayed, thus answering our question—is it worth hammering crops with more frequent spray applications to reduce disease—in the negative. For direct seeded brassicas, data suggests stopping fungicide applications entirely.
  • However, we were pleasantly surprised at how well our pesticide applications controlled flea beetles on the uncovered zones in some of the later plantings. We saw strong reductions in pest numbers using Entrust (spinosad), even in the zone with very high pest pressure. However, we saw very weak correlation between spraying more frequent fungicides and higher yield of marketable product.
  • We felt like there was more impact from variety selection and timing than from organic fungicides. However, we also felt that we should re-trial a tighter fungicide rotation of the two that showed better efficacy in 2022 extension trials (OSO and Badge).

Changes and Adjustments:

We did have to adjust the trial during the growing season.

Our first major hiccup was that we planned and budgeted for this project in summer and fall 2021, but we implemented this project after early 2022’s jump in pricing, labor, and interest rates. We saw supply cost increases and a tighter than normal labor market. We had to tighten up the size of our treatment zones due to high cost on the Proteknet in particular, and shorter staffing to a lesser degree. But as initial zones were three times as long as they ended up being, they may have been too large to start out with!

The second adjustment was that due to an excessively dry spring and early summer, we had to make two field changes. First, we needed double irrigation lines elsewhere in key fields, so we weren’t able to install the distant isolation zones as all the mainlines were in use. However, we observed that all brassicas on the farm that were hit by Alternaria showed signs at the same time, regardless of location or relative isolation. In fact, we had abutting plantings (where the leaves actually touched) where later untreated plantings didn't have much disease (more on that in future trial section).

This dry weather also led us to plant 3 large brassica rounds and only 1 direct seeded round. We generally observe greater disease pressure in the larger cultivars, and we were concerned the direct seeded plantings would be too healthy to show results this season. Little did we know the weather would flip!

2022 was an odd weather year, with a pattern that is becoming too common here in NY: excessively dry first half of summer flipping to an excessively wet second half. Unusually, we had a high level of Alternaria in the fall brassicas but essentially no other diseases hit these crops (nor did we seem other diseases in non-treatment areas), so we aren’t sure if the treatments would have had more impact if the 2022 disease load was more diverse.

The final hiccup in the trial was that half our farm got Covid quite bad in September during the peak of the trial, and it lingered for the next month or more, which significantly impacted our outreach plans!

Finally, on a minor note, we switched from managing our data with AirTable to using old fashioned paper forms, as we didn't want employees to have to use their personal electronics in such wet conditions. This was fine during the season, but created a huge paperwork burden that really delayed data assessment later in the year! 

Measured or Projected Farm Changes:

We had imagined that more intensive management would result in lower plant insect and disease pressure, and thus in higher net yields (and presumably higher net income).

What we saw was that less management can lead to greater net profit (which makes sense since we were spending so much less labor in those treatments during low-disease parts of the season). Yields in these less managed treatments were not always of adequate quality or were too low to be space efficient (we have access to unlimited space). However, as disease pressure increases, more intensive cultural practices and management pays off.

We were surprised to learn broccoli and cauliflower were more profitable than our previously created enterprise budget (as long as yields were decent) as we had considered them loss leaders in the best-case scenario. Under high disease pressure situations, they are still catastrophic money losers. Timing seems critical to keep in mind when making such management decisions. We plant many successions of individual crops, but as a CSA-focused farm, assess and manage them as averages. We should be looking at each one individually as timing alone seems to be our key variable.

Our main farm change from this trial was better understanding of the true cost and impact of our management around spray frequency and high labor cultural controls. This understanding is leading us to use landscape fabric, row covers, and netting, as well as spray more strategically for pests and less for disease.

For 2023, this supported our decision to change our market mix away from CSA and towards more wholesale and smaller markets, where we can minimize our staffing costs, reduce our fall brassica production, and make time on the farm to better assess several other of our crops and markets closely. Ultimately, we believe this will make us more financially and personally sustainable in our operations as we specialize a bit more into crops where we know we have better margins and less production pressures.

Research conclusions:

Our trial asked three questions and we feel like the research did provide answers, which in general are:

Do cultural strategies impact the cost effectiveness of each spray regimen? Does a particular mix of cultural practices provide equal or better control of disease/bring higher yield? Yes, but only one had any statistical significance. In wet or high disease pressure situations, we must use landscape fabric. In an ideal world, we would always use landscape fabric, but the physical hassle of dealing with it we felt outweighs the benefit. In a time crunch, low pest, or wet year, we can forgo covers if we adjust our spray program. The plants look ugly for a while, but if they survive, they do produce.

Is it cost effective to spray more frequently? Does the added time cost pay off through marketable product? No, our current frequency of application was most cost effective, however we need to make sure we use products with higher efficacy. Organic fungicides were less effective than organic pesticides, but we need to do more product-targeted trials.

Where is the sweet spot in the combination of practices/spray frequency with the highest net return? There are three sweet spots we identified. In low disease large brassicas we concluded that row cover on bare ground, removing the row cover 3 weeks earlier, is the best mix. For higher disease pressure situations or before heading into a damp part of the year, we should use landscape fabric in the aisles. And for small brassicas, we should forgo spraying and use either ProtekNet or row cover.

Despite some data variation, we concluded that:

  • Our current operating practices are on target.
  • This means the row cover status quo remains the best middle ground option, but we should remove row covers three weeks earlier to capture some of the labor savings of uncovered plantings.
  • In direct seeded small brassicas, we can use netting as it does marginally increase yield.

From a production practice perspective, we did answer our question, but not entirely conclusively. We need to do more trials next year on fungicide efficacy, reexamine our varietal selection, and look at timing impacts (with very early and very late plantings both do better than main season fall plantings). 

There were additional conclusions which we plan to explore changes around. We built a robust time analysis of some of our farm’s more tedious operations (filling weight bags, laying out weight bags, installing and moving row cover, spraying) and how much things like pesticide application cost per bed foot. In every one of these instances, the time or supply cost was significantly lower than it “felt” like, leading us to approach some of our more tedious tasks with more fortitude and patience! We need to reassess our post-CSA partial and enterprise budgets with the new data.

In terms of bigger systemic changes, we are considering the economic impact of either stopping fall transplanted brassica production entirely, or dropping our organic certification for these specific crops, or changing permanently our market mix towards more cost-effective crops. All three of these are being trialed here in 2023.

Preparation of direct seeded zone prior to hooping and covering
Preparation of direct seeded zone prior to hooping and covering. The direct seeded brassicas had high net yields and income.
Participation Summary
1 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

4 Consultations
2 Published press articles, newsletters
1 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary:

40 Farmers participated
5 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

Our initial plan was to host a fall field day at the farm, but all got Covid the week before the scheduled tour and were not able to recuperate and reschedule in time due to ongoing health issues--we did reach out individually to interested farmers that had been planning to attend and had several one-on-one discussions/walk throughs around the project.

In winter 2022, we participated in the NOFA-NY conference on the panel, "Extreme Weather: the Reality Show We Don't Want, but Can't Leave," where we highlighted how this project tied into our experience farming in more extreme weather, and how the cultural controls we trialed helped us assess adaptions to more extreme weather and pest/pathogen regimens.

We have two articles in process due to appear in Growing for Market's September 2023 and October 2023 issues. The first article highlights the formal results of the trial as they related to our goals for the project. The second article covers the other things we learned (that we didn't anticipate!) from participating in this project.

I have also continued to work with other farmers in our area this summer around issues of disease management in brassicas, and shared project information in ongoing one-on-one settings.

Learning Outcomes

40 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

From those of us working directly on the project, and those we spoke with one on one or post conference presentation, takeaways from other producers were similar to ours. In general, most of us were surprised to learn some of the per-bed-foot breakdowns on supply pricing, or how quick it was to lay down or pull up row cover (it feels like 15 minutes when it really takes 3 minutes!).

There also was a general consensus and discussion around how weird production is now, especially among those of us who have been growing a few decades. How things “used” to grow feels no longer viable, and growers need to be more flexible, prepared, and nimble now than we used to be, and this costs money.

There were many more philosophical discussions that came from talking about this project, especially around what is worth doing to produce a crop, and how we value some crops relative to what the customers see in them. For instance, is it worth growing something like broccoli that might cost $3/head to produce in a rough year when the customer perceives it as a $1.50/head item? Is it worth being organic? Is it worth keeping a crop going through extra efforts versus terminating early?

There has also been a lot of discussion about collaboration and cooperation, in part both to share information around challenges and projects like this, but also to be able to better specialize in crops and not grow all things for all people.

netting over a broccoli plant with flea beetles feeding through the holes
Even as we found solutions that show promise, each had some potential issues--for instance the continued feeding through the ProtekNet

Project Outcomes

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

We had anticipated seeing clear, easy to interpret results from this project (as it's been a while since school, and we forgot that many trials don't have statistically strong results), but our lessons were a lot greyer.

In general, our analysis suggests that what we have been doing is more or less on target compared to other options, when you balance time, labor costs, hassle, yields, and net income.

Unfortunately, this leads us to conclude that we aren't in a great situation to produce some of these particular crops in a way that is mentally or economically sustainable for the operation.

This stimulated major discussions among our wider farm crew and our neighboring farmers that visited the trial or spoke with us about the temporal and financial sustainability of diversified organic production (say for a CSA like ours). 2022's growing season was brutal financially with the increase in fuel and supply costs, and the first year when we started hearing from customers that they were reducing their food spending costs on produce.

Keeping such tight data made us better overall at time tracking, but also made us question the value of some of our actions, amendments, and crops. Is it worth trying to be organic in a high moisture environment when the customer wants nice looking product, but the efficacy of organic fungicides is questionable? When thrown to our members, the answer to this question - "Do you want your fall broccoli so bad you are willing for us to drop certification to guarantee it's good enough to eat" was all over the board. 

What we realized is that we don't want to live in suspense (and cannot afford the risk of) some of these high popularity, loss leader crops. Even in a good year, our loss rates on fall brassicas are high due to disease. As much as we and our customers love these crops, our conclusion from this project is to adjust our fall crop mix to focus on more reliable crops and varieties (sprouting cauliflower, for instance, did great in all trial zones even when actively infected with Alternaria). This was made especially clear when our direct seeded trial zone cost less than $.10 per unit and the large brassica zones ranged from $.50 to $2/unit. Clearly, there’s more expensive risk embedded in these higher cost crops, and we are no longer interested in being the sole party carrying that risk.

daikon radishes laid out to sort and top
Finishing the treatment zones with a direct seeded planting was a good reminder that lower effort crops have higher returns. Now we just have to build markets for some of them!

For 2023, we made some major changes based on this trial. We switched our market mix away from CSA and more to smaller wholesale accounts and direct farmers market. This allowed us to retool our fall crop lineup to focus on crops that make us more money, or are more efficient and less risky to grow. Due to these changes, we've been able to get away from as much time spent applying fungicides, as well as less time handling pest covers. Brassicas that we do grow are a limited amount of broccoli and cauliflower (about 1/10th of what we produced last year) and a wider mix of quicker growing brassica greens and roots. We've been devoting a greater percentage of our fall ground to higher netting non-brassica crops, and are charging more per unit for any broccoli and cauliflower that we do grow. In short, we are returning a little bit back to our smaller, earlier roots as a farm.

We also suspended our organic certification this year, though we do continue to only use products approved for organic production and may re-certify in 2024. We wanted to have the space to independently assess the impact of not being certified on our sales and income. We have been certified or followed organic practices for over twenty years. However, we are questioning the sustainability of organic approaches in high-moisture environments, given the current varieties available. 

Keeping all the financial and labor data for this project (and in more general on our farm) really gave us a basis to analyze what was making and what was costing money. In 2023, by scaling back on the CSA and its higher operating labor costs we will net more profit overall. From a mission perspective, this isn't ideal (we like growing more food and training the next generation of farmers), but from a personal sanity and family perspective, it's given us a bit of a breather to further assess our profit and loss centers. We anticipate using this year's records to retool production further next year. (And maybe start adding back some of those big brassicas in moderation!) Juggling all these variables over just a fraction of our field operations really was eye-opening on our operational complexity for all the staff at the farm. It made us realize that our farm would be financially stronger if we moved away from a single-farm CSA to something more flexible and collaborative in the future.

Among the farmers working on this project, three have moved to farming less and working off farm more. The others, like us, have adapted their crop mix and more confidentially removed crops (including some customer favorites) from their lineup for 2023.

One of our unspoken goals on the farm is to move away from using plastics as it becomes possible, and this trial gave us a stronger framework to assess the relative merits of using agricultural fabrics (plastics) in the field, and a roadmap to consider to moving forward to reduce plastic use of row covers and netting (if we can get our spray application timing down and cut out the more fragile crops from our crop mix).

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

We did answer the questions we started with and we left this trial with a good assessment of what practices work and don’t on our farm. Unfortunately, outside of the landscape fabric, our results weren’t statistically significant, but did support our preferences for producing these crops.

On the challenge side, our biggest issue managing the trial was that our treatment zones were wildly overoptimistic—initially we had 153 different combinations, which is not viable on a working farm. We also had a mix of fungicides, crops, and varieties all at different timings across the season, which created a mountain of data to muddle through! After this refresher in experimental design, we will definitely stick to single variable trials in the future!!

We did answer the questions we started out with, and we will continue to use all the cultural controls trialed, but just not all of them for one crop—rather, we will let the controls stick with the crops they support the best.

This project also suggests to us many further research areas, some of which we are already testing in 2023. These include:

  • Trialing potential replacement crops to broccoli, specifically direct seeded single cut sprouting broccoli varieties. (For 2023, we are trialing Happy Rich as our main broccoli and Song as our main cauliflower.)
  • Trialing with disease resistance as our main goal - looking to smaller seed houses and ones in wetter regions to see if we can source better resistance.
  • New fungicide combos, specifically limiting them to a 2 product rotation (max) so that we can see efficacy (and lack thereof) more clearly. Based on new extension research we are focusing on OSO and Badge.
  • Continuing time trials to identify which crop applications make most sense for landscape fabric on aisles. It reduced disease and made moving bags and scouting/spraying easier, but it also has high time installation costs and high plastic use. Besides sustainability, we are also concerned about year-to-year disease transfer. We also want to reassess using straw instead of landscape fabric and see if there is similar results.
  • Seeing if we can modify the Proteknet by sewing landscape fabric strips to the edges. While we like the reusability and higher strength of this material, it was narrow and difficult to keep plants from touching it (where pests could lay eggs through the netting), and we struggled with weeds and mud getting stuck where the weave touched the ground and ripping it. We have purchased lighter weight landscape fabric and plan to see if we can fabricate a solution that might combine two products that work (landscape fabric and netting) but that have high hassle costs.
  • There are infinite variables in farming, and it is hard to assess in a single season what works. For example, did our fungicide regimen keep the non-Alternaria diseases down, or were we lucky? We need to re-run portions of this trial only using the most effective fungicide(s), and not a mix.

We feel that diversified smaller farms might benefit from these results, especially those who like us are juggling a number of market outlets and crop mixes. As a CSA-first farm, we primarily look at the whole-farm mix of income and expenses. Digging into this trial really exposed some losses that we have been trying to overcome by spending more time and energy on those crops, when it seems that the better response may be to cut and replace those crops. This can be an uncomfortable conversation, but we feel like a stronger operation going into 2023 having had it.

I think this conversation and assessment on other farms might also be helpful for those who are dealing with multiple bad weather variables in a single season. Running this project in both drought and deluge conditions really teased out how different practices impacted crops based on varying weather conditions.

a field of diseased broccoli
This is what we don't want to see again - our Alternaria infested Zone 2 of broccoli! 

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.