An increasing trend among North Central Region farmers is the use of unheated greenhouses, commonly referred to as hoophouses or high tunnels, to extend the growing season and produce food crops when ambient outdoor growing conditions would not permit it.
Hoophouses are low cost plastic covered structures that can help farmers gain a competitive edge through growing and selling a wider variety of vegetables year-round. A review of hoophouse related literature reveals that while a many resources exist to assist farmers with construction and production, minimal research has been done to investigate the on-farm profitability of specific hoophouse crops. This lack of research has profoundly limited the success of farmers choosing to use season extension technology.
The proposed project seeks to address this gap in research in two ways. First, we will run a pilot program with eight hoophouse farmers throughout the region to develop benchmarks for crop profitability. These farmers will track and keep records of the crops grown in their hoophouses for two seasons, spring and summer. The results from these farmers will be compiled to show the on-farm results of hoophouse crop profitability for specific hoophouse crops. These results will be published in an extension bulletin for other farmers to use as benchmarks for their own farms. Secondly, a spreadsheet tool currently in use for commercial greenhouse production will be adapted for hoophouse farmers to calculate the profitability of hoophouse vegetable crops. Both resources will be posted online and introduced at a conference attended by an estimated 200 farmers. Farmers in the pilot program will be surveyed to gauge their learning as a result of participating in this project. Attendees at the conference will also be surveyed to assess the benefit of this research.
In the short term the pilot results and spreadsheet tool will enable farmers to focus their production plans on profitable crops, provide benchmarks to compare results with and provide a tool for farmers to record their data. Through understanding the profit/loss results for each hoophouse crop, farmers will be able to adjust their production plans and pricing to increase the likelihood of profitability in future seasons. In the long run, hoophouse farmers throughout the region will see increased profitability from their hoophouse enterprises, which will increase the financial viability and sustainability of farms throughout the region.
The outputs of the project are designed to maximize the impact and value of this project’s results throughout the North Central Region. First, a spreadsheet tool for calculating crop profitability will be adapted for hoophouse use and made available to farmers. This tool will provide a way
for farmers to calculate the profitability of their own hoophouse crops. The eight farmers from the pilot project will offer input in the spreadsheet tool design and will be also trained in the use of the spreadsheet tool.
Next, in order to reach a larger sector of the farming community, the results from the eight farmer pilot program will be published in an extension bulletin. In addition, a conference presentation will be made to introduce the results and spreadsheet tool to an estimated audience of 200 farmers. To further expand the audience for this research and spreadsheet tool, the pilot project results and spreadsheet will be posted on the MSU Hoophouse website. Finally, a larger project will be designed in order to expand the data set, reach and impact of this pilot project.
We obtained IRB approval for our protocol and instruments (IRB #14-098e). We then recruited 9 farms in the lower peninsula of MI and asked them to provide forms and keep spreadsheets for their record keeping. We provided cash incentives for farmers to submit monthly data. They tracked carrots, peppers, and tomatoes. The graduate student left the program half way through data collection. Adam Montri and Dr. Bridget Behe completed as much data collection and analysis as possible.
Few farmers were accounting for depreciation. Detailed records on small, diversified farms can be a challenge.