Final Report for LNE05-229

Implementing a sustainable greenhouse health maintenance program

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2005: $83,637.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $41,000.00
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
Tina Smith
University of Massachusetts
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Project Information

Summary:

Over four years, 63 New England diversified farmers participated in one-to-one site visits that were implemented during the spring and fall greenhouse growing seasons in Connecticut (44) and Massachusetts (17) and Rhode Island (2). A total of 425 site visits were conducted by three Extension staff in Connecticut (359) and Massachusetts (66). As a result of these visits, 32 growers changed practices associated with their soil fertility, 56 growers learned to identify insects, mites and signs of diseases in their greenhouses, 17 used microbial pesticides or biological control methods such as Trichoderma, Beauvaria bassiana, Bacillus thuringiensis, Hypoaspis miles, Neoseilus cucumeris, parasitic nematodes and biofungicides such as Bacillus subtillis and Trichoderma harzianum. Eight growers learned to use on-site test kits for disease diagnosis and 50 changed a cultural practice to benefit crop health. The participating diversified farms included dairy, fruit growers, greenhouse vegetable growers, greenhouse ornamentals and field vegetable growers. Over four years 1,102 attended a total of 12 educational SARE programs and over 500 received regular greenhouse update email messages. Of those that attended the educational programs, 190 reported on their evaluation forms that they would either try a new practice or change an existing practice as a result of attending the program. Of those that received update email messages 83 returned an on-line survey in 2008. Of those, 46-64 (55%-77%) were influenced by the message to adopt one or more pest management practices. According to evaluations, the message alerted 57 growers (69%) to a problem that they might have missed and the message assisted 64 (77%) in diagnosing plant problems. For the combined outreach activities over four years, of the 521 evaluations returned, 437 (84%) reported in evaluations that they would benefit economically as a result of either attending a program or receiving the greenhouse update message.

Introduction:

New England farmers use greenhouses to grow potted herbs, vegetable bedding plants, tomatoes, annual and perennial flowering plants (from both seed and cuttings), and potted holiday crops such as poinsettias. Greenhouse-grown plants are sold to consumers for planting in gardens or landscapes and for use in mixed planters, hanging baskets or for indoor use. Greenhouse vegetables and herbs are sold retail at farmers markets and roadside stand, and wholesale to restaurants and through other markets.In recent years, many farmers in southern New England have added greenhouse crops to their businesses to increase income. Greenhouse and nursery crops comprise more than one-third of all cash receipts received by agricultural producers in both Massachusetts and Connecticut. Bedding plants and garden plants are the largest sales category for both states. Critical issues for farmers wishing to adopt sustainable greenhouse production are prevention of cultural and pest problems (which are increasing due to industry globalization and pest invasion), early diagnosis, and early intervention. By adopting these practices, farmers could prevent plant loss in greenhouses due to common problems caused by diseases like Botrytis, Impatiens necrotic spot virus and poor nutrition (low pH, high soluble salts). Farmers receive conventional pesticide recommendations from sales and technical staff from local greenhouse supply companies. Sales representatives tend to promote the product they have in stock and those products with the highest profit margin. Our sustainable greenhouse health maintenance program was able to provide unbiased information that helped growers to prevent problems and grow their greenhouse crops using sustainable practices and products. We implemented a four year sustainable greenhouse health maintenance program (GHMP) in southern New England (MA, CT, RI) that included hands-on training, site visits, diagnostics, pest management and cultural recommendations, an early alert system, sustainable greenhouse workshops and conferences, and evaluation surveys. Extension educators conducted greenhouse site visits primarily during the spring and fall growing seasons in Massachusetts and Connecticut, working with growers to identify pests, nutritional and cultural problems, and finding sustainable solutions. During visits, farmers learned how to use tools for early diagnosis, cultural practices to reduce pests and how to use low-risk pesticides and biological controls. Information from the site visits were disseminated to farmers throughout southern New England (MA, CT, RI) via email, websites and fax as an early alert system. Twelve sustainable greenhouse education workshops and conferences were held over the four years.

Performance Target:

Of the 150 farmers in southern New England (MA, CT, RI) who will participate in on-farm, and other educational opportunities offered through this program, we projected that at least 30 would adopt one or more new sustainable greenhouse practices within three years of the program. These 30 farmers would achieve one or more of the following: Reduced plant losses from pest damage or cultural practices, reduced use of high-risk pesticides, effective use of low-risk pesticides and biological controls, and integration of proper cultural practices in their greenhouses. Project activities were to support the NESARE outcome statement by having a positive influence on the environment and by helping farms to become successfully diversified and profitable. More farmers would adopt sustainable practices for greenhouse production as a result of this project. This would have a positive influence on the environment by reducing the use of high-risk pesticides. Since the beneficiaries were to be farmers who grow other agricultural crops or may raise livestock, this project would also help the farmers to diversify their businesses by successfully growing greenhouse plants for sale, increasing farm incomes.

HOW WE DID
We were able to exceed our targets. Instead of 150 participating farmers, we had a total of 1,665 participate in educational programs, one-to-one site visits and email alerts. Growers requested to be added to the email list, we did not add their names involuntarily. We also exceeded our target projection of at least 30 growers adopting one or more new sustainable greenhouse practices over the course of the program. Of the 63 growers that received site visits, 17 growers tried at least one biological control practice, 56 growers learned to identify insects, mites and diseases, 8 growers learned to use diagnostic test kits, 50 growers changed one or more cultural practices and 32 changed a nutritional practice. We feel these are conservative figures. Also growers will adopt even more sustainable practices over time as they participate in future Extension activities. We measured change through evaluations and were able to observe adopted practices by growers and record information as we visited. Through workshops and conferences, 69 growers reportedly planned to use new biological control information, 61 planned to change a nutrition practice, 46 were going to graft tomatoes (disease prevention) and 67 learned to recognize insects, mites and diseases and their symptoms (through our on-line photo library, greenhouse update). Educational programs and web-based education were evaluated through self-conducted surveys, written evaluations at programs and on-line evaluations. We consistently had well-attended educational programs and feedback through evaluations which were very positive.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Douglas Cox
  • Bess Dicklow
  • Paul Lopes
  • Richard McAvoy
  • Leanne Pundt
  • Robert Wick

Research

Materials and methods:

Our project involved one-to-one site visits, conferences and workshops and email and websites to reach diversified farmers that grow crops in greenhouses in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island about sustainable greenhouse production practices.

Activity # 1 – Site Visits.
Extension educators visited sixty three different farms in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island during the spring (February – May) and fall (September – November) over the four years of the project. Most of the visits were conducted during the spring growing season since all growers had spring crops. Very few growers had crops in greenhouses during the fall as poinsettia production has declined. However, over the four years we experienced an increased interest in greenhouse vegetables and that may influence fall crops for the future. Responsibilities for the various aspects of the project naturally divided between Extension staff due to time management. Leanne conducted many more visits in Connecticut, Paul conducted site visits in Massachusetts and Tina visited fewer growers, but coordinated more of the workshops and conferences and managed the website. We visited farms whose owners fit the characteristics of the beneficiaries for this project and were located primarily in MA or CT, but also made visits to two growers in Rhode Island. Extension educators worked directly with individual farmers to assess plant health by looking for pests and diseases, review use of growers’ media, fertility programs, and cultural practices.

We advertised the program through Extension newsletters, email lists, regional trade publications such as Country Folks magazine, Department of Agriculture newsletters, Connecticut Natural Resource Conservation Service and exhibits at supply company open houses and the New England Greenhouse Conference. We also recruited growers who contacted Extension for help to solve a problem if they fit the description of the beneficiary for the project.

We set up appointments with growers for visits. On our visit we distributed written literature depending on the needs of the grower. We toured the greenhouse operation with the grower, making observations and suggestions. In some cases, we scouted with the grower. Plants suspicious of disease or nutritional disorder were brought to the diagnostic and/or soil lab for diagnosis and follow-up recommendations were provided. We brought diagnostic test kits and when applicable, showed farmers how they worked and where they could purchase their own kits. Farmers are still not likely to stock diagnostic test kits, due their expense, limited use and storage time. However, it was still important that farmers were made aware of them for possible future use. Most growers in the program needed help with plant nutrition and other cultural problems which caused their plants to grow poorly. Greenhouse crops are primarily grown using soilless mixes and liquid fertilizers through an injector. Soil tests are needed to monitor plant nutrition and pH levels. We found that farmers did not conduct soil tests often enough on their crop to monitor crop health. As a result, under or over fertilization and pH drift was a problem for many farmers. We were able to help farmers provide proper nutrition practices and pH for crops and correct improper fertilization and pH levels. Cultural practices such as proper watering, use of horizontal air flow, heating and venting to reduce humidity and sanitation practices, were reviewed with farmers for disease management. Extension educators also provided information and guided farmers on using thrips predators (Amblyseius cucumeris), Bacillus thuringiensis (Gnatrol), nematodes or IGRs for fungus gnats, and aphid parasitoids, mite predators and biofungicides such as Bacillus subtillis and Trichoderma harzianum.

Extension educators conducting the site visits had expert support for soil testing and disease diagnostics from University faculty and laboratories and from the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. While individual growers benefitted from one-to-one site visits, extension educators also learned from this partnership. Observations and suggestions were compiled into weekly messages throughout the growing season that reached a larger audience of farmers that alerted them to current problems occurring in greenhouses.

Activity #2 – Alert Program.
Each week, pests and cultural problems identified at site visits, together with sustainable recommendations for their control, were summarized in a one to two page weekly message that was emailed with a link or faxed to farmers throughout southern New England (MA, CT, RI). The method of information delivery (email or fax) was tailored to the farmer’s needs. We solicited email addresses by publishing an article about the program in the following: Country Folks Magazine, Massachusetts Flower Growers Association newsletter, Extension newsletters for vegetable growers, fruit and berry growers and flower growers, Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources newsletter, Massachusetts Farm Bureau newsletter, Rhode Island Farm Bureau newsletter, Connecticut Department of Agriculture newsletter and through a fact sheet at Extension programs. We had a postcard designed to further publicize the program and collect email addresses and fax numbers. We also worked with the URI diagnostic laboratory and RI Farm Bureau to promote the alert system to RI growers. Extension staff developed and staffed exhibits (2 per year) at greenhouse supply company open houses (Griffin Greenhouse and Nursery Supplies and W.H. Milikowski Inc.) and at the New England Greenhouse Conference. We developed the fax alert part of the program for growers who do not have email addresses. The fax message limited the amount of information that could be sent and was more difficult to manage. We sent out a fax once a month instead of weekly. In year one, we began our message using a web-based blog. Tina, Paul and Leanne had access and could post messages individually. The photo library, although part of the website, was on Tina’s computer and she managed the photos that were sent to her. The blog had problems with spam, so in year four the message and photo library was moved to a new system called Joomla that Tina Smith manages. Paul and Leanne send messages to Tina who posts them. The photo library is being expanded with photos from Rob Wick and Leanne Pundt.

Activity # 3 – Educational Programs.
Although we proposed that two greenhouse education workshops on sustainable management were to be held each year in fall or winter we were able to provide 12 educational programs. There were 1,102 growers that attended. We included grower panels for farmer- to- farmer learning and presentations by researchers on recent results. Most educational programs were day-long programs. Feedback and input for more educational programming was provided through our site visits, observations and program evaluations. Our original proposal included a program committee that was to include six growers (two representatives of each state) who participate in the site visits or alert program. We found that farmers were already involved in many activities and another meeting would be difficult to attend. So, we felt that a formal meeting was not necessary. We solicited input during our one-to-one site visits, at programs and through grower contacts at meetings. All of our educational programs were well attended and the use of email, one to one grower interactive via site visits and written evaluations were adequate for developing educational programs and getting grower participation.

Extension staff, University faculty and farmers in New England provided program content, as well as farmers and Extension specialists outside of New England. If the program was held in CT, then Leanne served as coordinator and if in MA, Tina served as coordinator. Tina and Leanne coordinated speakers, handouts, audio visual equipment, site arrangements, registration and publicity and worked with Paul Lopes, Rich McAvoy, Doug Cox and others. Extension vegetable specialists from Connecticut and Massachusetts, Jude Boucher and Ruth Hazzard also contributed to Greenhouse Tomato programs. Program brochures were printed at UMass and Leanne coordinated press releases. Information was disseminated by direct mail through Extension mailing lists, to past program attendees, in Country Folks Magazine, Department of Agriculture newsletters, Farm Bureau newsletters, email lists and websites. Some programs such as the Greenhouse Tomato Conferences were co-sponsored with URI who also publicized the program.

Activity # 4 – Evaluations.
Evaluations, surveys and assessments were conducted throughout the four year program. Evaluations were conducted for most educational programs. Of the 987 total evaluations distributed at programs, 521 (54%) were returned and tabulated. Through these evaluations we learned that 69 growers reportedly planned to use new biological control information, 61 planned to change a nutrition practice, 46 were going to consider grafting tomatoes (disease prevention), and 15 were going to change a cultural practice.

We tried an on-line follow-up survey one year after our biological control program to measure adopted practices but did not receive enough response to be statistically valid. It might be that some of the email addresses were no longer up-to-date. Leanne conducted pre and post grower surveys and also wrote down observations for one-to-one site visits. Tina and Paul wrote down observations during their visits.

Research results and discussion:

We began our activities during the summer of 2005. We developed a post card to solicit email addresses for our message alert system, started conducting one-to-one site visits and conducted our first educational program. We were able to solicit 230 email addresses by December 2005 which increased to 350 by December 2006 which increased to 500 by November 2009. Our goal was to reach 150 growers through our greenhouse alert over the duration of the project. We exceeded our goal during the first year.

During 2006 we implemented one-to-one site visits. Thirty six diversified farmers participated. During 2007, 36 growers participated, during 2008, 29 participated and during 2009 there were 27 participants. Of the total 128 participation in the one-to-one program, there were 63 different participating farms. Some farms participated more than one year. Of the 63 different farms that received site visits, 17 growers tried at least one biological control practice, 56 growers learned to identify insects, mites and diseases, 8 growers learned to use diagnostic test kits, 50 growers changed one or more cultural practices and 32 changed a nutritional practice. We exceeded our expectation for the number of growers adopting new sustainable practices. We found that growers needed and wanted more site visits. Site visits are very hands-on, making it especially useful for growers to learn, especially for growers not able to leave their businesses to attend programs.

Participation Summary

Education

Educational approach:

We developed the publication, Pest Management for Vegetable Bedding plants as a result of the SARE grant, because we found this information lacking when working with growers.

Additional Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Impacts of Results/Outcomes

One-to-one site visits
Sixty three different farms in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island were visited by Extension educators in Massachusetts and Connecticut during the spring (February – May) and fall (September – November) each year for four years. Some farmers were only visited one time, but most farmers needed additional visits and assistance with sustainable greenhouse practices. Also, most of the visits were conducted during the spring growing season since all growers had spring crops. Very few growers have crops in greenhouses during the fall since poinsettia production has declined. However, we are experiencing an increased interest in greenhouse vegetables and that may influence fall crops for the future. Here is a sample of five participants in the program and some specific changes as a result of one-to-one site visits:

Grower 1
Dairy Farm with retail farm stand (including two very small greenhouses with bedding plants) plus greenhouse tomatoes. Also grows field grown vegetables and fruit (apples and pears) for farmers market
Area – 3000 ft2
After four visits teaching the grower how to scout and what to look for, the grower was able to monitor crops on her own for the rest of the season. The grower was shown an in-house test using immunostrip test kits by Agdia. The plants tested negative for impatiens necrotic spot virus (INSV) which is spread by thrips. The grower also was given advise by Dr. McAvoy on how to adjust her fertilizer program for the greenhouse tomatoes. As a result of changes in fertilizer practices, the plants appeared healthy and produced a consistent yield. In the post season survey results this grower rated her crop quality as excellent, the IPM training program as excellent, and would use IPM methods more in future years. She would recommend the training program to other growers.

Grower 2
1600 ft2 – bedding plants and greenhouse tomatoes, mums, 8 acres field grown vegetables
Grower 2 had various crops showing symptoms of thrips and tospovirus. The grower was shown how to use the immunostrip test kits by Agdia on New Guinea impatiens showing various stages of INSV symptoms, as well as nemesia, basil, & begonia. The grower then began a rigorous spray program for thrips and discarded the infected plant material. He learned proper placement of yellow sticky cards in the houses and kept track of thrips counts to monitor the effectiveness of his spray program. The grower learned to scout for aphids, mites, downy mildew and powdery mildews. In his post season survey, he rated the training program as excellent, would recommend the program to other growers and would use more integrated pest management methods in future years.

Grower 3
15,000 ft 2, 20 acres outside including vegetables, cut flowers etc.
In addition to learning to monitor pests and cultural problems such as oedema, the grower followed Dr. McAvoy’s recommendations regarding a different fertilizer program for the greenhouse tomatoes. This grower also released beneficial predatory mites against thrips (both Hypoasis miles and Neoseilus cucumeris) on a regular basis and used the microbial biopesticide, Bacillus thuringienis against the tomato hornworm.
In the post season survey, the grower rated crop quality as excellent (one of her better years), the GHMP program as excellent, would recommend the program to other growers and would use integrated pest management methods more in the future.

Grower 4
6,000 sq. ft, vegetable and small fruit farm, cut flowers, roadside stand
The grower contacted Extension agent when plant foliage turned brown in the greenhouse and plants were declining in health. Plants were in a mixed greenhouse with vegetable crops for the field. The grower was shown how to identify thrips and monitor for impatiens necrotic spot virus (INSV) and was shown how to use test kits. The grower was provided resources for identifying and managing pests and given specific recommendations for thrips management. Several follow-up visits were made to ensure confidence and the next year, more visits were conducted. The grower now participates in programs and receives greenhouse update messages. In year two the grower was able to monitor the crops on their own and make pest management decisions.

Grower 5
6,000 sq. ft 2 greenhouses – Ex-dairy farm, second generation grower, grows spring bedding plants, herbs, mixed hanging baskets, & garden mums. New roadside stand.
During the first visit, very basic information was provided on greenhouse management. The grower was using a lawn and garden liquid fertilizer apparatus in the greenhouse. Information was provided about injectors, fertilizers and general greenhouse production. Each year this grower has progressed. He is now using some biological control, has learned to better schedule his crops to meet market demand and for crop quality and practices better sanitation.

Alert Program
Our update messages have been well received and we continually receive positive feedback about them. We post messages weekly during the spring growing season, and fewer messages throughout the rest of the year. We conducted on-line surveys two times during the past four years to evaluate the effectiveness of the messages. The most recent survey was conducted in 2008. Of those that received update email messages 83 of 500 (17%) returned an on-line survey in 2008. Of those that responded:
-48 (58%) checked that the message assists them in using biological control of pests
-64 (77%) checked that it improved their understanding of a pest problem
-47 (57%) checked that the message aided in the choice of the most effective pesticide
-46 (55%) checked that the message aided in the timing of a pesticide application
-57 (69%)checked that the message alerted them to a problem that they might have missed
-64 (77%) checked that the message assisted in diagnosing a plant problem
-49 (59%) checked that the message assisted them in non-chemical management of a pest.
-67 (81%) learned to recognize insects, mites and diseases and their damage

Therefore, 46-67 (55%-81%) were influenced by the message to adopt one or more pest management practices. We received 28 written comments about the usefulness of the message such as:
“Find it very helpful…Please don’t quit!”
“These updates are timely and helpful. I hope this project continues.”
“I have learned a lot from NEGreenhouse Update. The fact that it is focusing on our region makes it very useful to me. I feel the info is very current and helps me stay alert of potential problems that may show up on our crops due to discoveries or problems occurring here in New England.”

We receive separate emails occasionally such as “Great email, thanks so much…You are like my greenhouse conscience nagging me to do the right thing!”

As a bonus, our messages are being broadcast nationally via email messages through greenhouse trade magazines. For example, one magazine editor wrote, “Last week we promoted your TMV or Iron Deficiency item in our e-newsletter and got a tremendous response – a high click rate. Do you mind if we do this on a regular basis?”

According to Google analytics, over the past four years, there have been 22,330 visits with 47.49% direct traffic, 33.06% search engines and 19.44% from referring sites.

Educational Programs
We provided 12 educational programs that were attended by 1,102 growers. We included grower panels for farmer- to- farmer learning and presentations by researchers on recent results. Most educational programs were day-long programs. One to one interaction with growers and program evaluations provided input for topics for educational programming. All of our educational programs were well attended and the use of email, one-to-one grower interactive via site visits and written evaluations were adequate for developing educational programs and obtaining grower participation.

Educational Programs Conducted
July 05 Biological Control of Whiteflies on Poinsettia, Twilight meeting, 15 attendees
November 05 2005 Greenhouse Tomato Conference, 110 attendees
January 06 Plant Nutrition for Greenhouse Crops, 42 attendees
January 07 Integrated Pest Management and Weed Management for Perennials, 110 attendees
November 07 2007 Greenhouse Tomato Conference, 170 attendees
December 07 Growing and Marketing Greener, 70 attendees (during snowstorm)
April 08 The Basics of Plant Problem Diagnosis, 50 attendees
September 08 Biological Control in Greenhouses, 75 attendees
December 08 Alternative Greenhouse and High Tunnel Crops, 155 attendees
September 09 Biological Control in Greenhouses, 75 attendees
October 09 Nutrition for Greenhouse Crops, 50 attendees
November 08 2008 Greenhouse and High Tunnel Tomato Conference, 180 attendees

Evaluations were conducted for most programs. Of the 987 total evaluations distributed at programs, 521 (54%) were returned and tabulated. Through these evaluations we learned that 69 growers (13%) reportedly plan to use new biological control information, 61 (12%) plan to change a nutrition practice, 46 (9%) were going to consider grafting tomatoes (disease prevention), and 15 (3%) were going to change a cultural practice. Note that these numbers represent combined evaluations for all programs. Attendance and evaluations that were distributed and returned varied among programs and different subjects were addressed at the programs. We tried an on-line follow-up survey one year after our biological control program to measure adopted practices but did not receive enough response to be statistically valid. It might be that some of the email addresses were no longer up to date.

Other Impacts
The programs were much more affordable for small and beginning farmers due to the financial support of SARE. Often, the true cost of the program, would have been double the amount charged to growers. We were able to expand programming to bring in more expensive, nationally recognized speakers from outside of New England to share their expertise. This was especially helpful for the greenhouse tomato and biological control programs. The project also encouraged joint programming between Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island that provided opportunities for growers to network with other growers from throughout southern New England. Greater interest in the production of greenhouse vegetables and herbs and the use of biological control agents evolved over the course of the project. Fewer growers are growing poinsettias and more growers are interested in incorporating biological control agents and other sustainable methods into their production. This provides direction for future programming and grant writing efforts.

In addition to the financial benefits for the farmers, the Extension staff developed strong working relationships over the past four years that will continue for future programming.

Farmer Adoption

Although economic analysis was not proposed for our project, there were strong indications that farmers saved money by preventing greenhouse problems associated with insects, mites, disease and poor cultural practices. Evaluation results, observations and discussions with growers showed that prevention through our message alert, training through one-to-one and educational programming helped farmers grow better crops, use fewer pesticides, use effective pest control products and proper cultural practices and as a result saved money and increased the value of their crops. We feel that all 63 of the participants in the one-to-one visits have benefited financially and helped the environment. More growers were able to attend educational programming due to the financial support of NESARE. Continued educational programming and the message update will also have long term implications. Over the past couple of years, chrysanthemum white rust became a problem for growers in New England. The message board was especially helpful to identify this disease for early diagnose and take precautions. This will have long term implications.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

Since the start of our SARE project, Griffin Greenhouse and Nursery Supply Company has recently contracted with Biobest to supply biological control agents to customers. Griffin is the largest greenhouse supply company in New England and it has only recently (2007) started distributing biological control agents for insects and mites. As a result of sales staff promoting biocontrol, there is more interest in using biological control agents and we are seeing a greater need for education in this area to prevent failure. There is extensive research and grower experience in using biological control agents in long term greenhouse vegetables. Using biological control agents in ornamental greenhouses such as mixed spring crops is still in its infancy.

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.