Tarping to Advance Reduced Tillage Systems on Small-Scale Vegetable Farms

Progress report for LNE19-382

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2019: $199,962.00
Projected End Date: 11/30/2022
Grant Recipient: Cornell University
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Dr. Anusuya Rangarajan
Cornell University
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Project Information

Performance Target:

Thirty participating small-scale vegetable farmers implement new tarp management plans to reduce their tillage intensity and report greater flexibility in bed management, 40 hours of labor savings, and an increase in net income by $1000 per tarped acre.

Introduction:

Small-scale vegetable farms (<15 acres) commonly depend on intensive, repeated tillage that is detrimental to soils and long-term productivity while continuing to struggle with weeds. For these farms, the consequences of heavy tillage are magnified by land constraints for sufficient cover crop windows and the high material and labor costs associated with organic mulches and amendments. These farmers represent an increasing majority of Northeast vegetable farms but there are few examples of successful reduced tillage (RT) and no-tillage (NT) management with scale-appropriate tools and equipment. These farmers have many concerns with reducing tillage, including weed and plant residue management, low soil temperatures and fertility, and poor crop establishment and/or lower yields. While RT strategies have been demonstrated to improve labor efficiencies and profitability on larger farms, benefits have been slow to accrue for smaller farms.

To advance adoption of RT on these small-scale vegetable farms, we will investigate opaque plastic tarps as a low-cost, labor-saving practice to reduce tillage intensity and add management flexibility. Despite farmer interest in tarping to address weed challenges, there has been little research that explores tarping as an RT strategy under a range of small-scale vegetable production systems. Our approach is designed to use tarps to overcome commonly cited concerns with RT. Our research and extension team, which includes our farmer advisors, will bring together expertise across the Northeast region (NY, ME, MA, PA) to take a whole-systems approach to advancing RT for these producers.

Our integrated research and education effort starts with farmer-centered workshops using Dialogue Education (DE) strategies that facilitate peer-peer learning. Together, farmers will identify opportunities for RT, evaluate tarp rotation strategies to reduce risks of RT, and design individualized on-farm RT transition plans specific to their own goals. Subsequent farmer-led on-farm experimentation will be supported over multiple years through direct consulting, virtual discussion groups, webinars, and field days that help farmers evaluate and share their results, participate in knowledge sharing networks, and learn research findings to foster continued innovation of these RT systems.

Using established permanent bed systems trials (NY, ME) with a history of different soil and crop management regimes, our research will explore how tarping, tillage and additional soil management practices change soil fertility, weed dynamics, and crop performance and the needed labor, equipment and other inputs required to improve success of RT and NT for small-scale vegetables.

Cooperators

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Research

Hypothesis:

We hypothesize:
1) Tarping will lower weed pressure and labor use and increase available soil nitrogen, crop productivity and profitability across tillage systems (Obj. 1)
2) Tarping effects will be greatest in no-till relative to conventional and shallow tillage systems (Obj. 1).
3) Tarping impacts on weeds, labor use, and profitability will be greatest within unmulched, bare soil systems (Obj. 2).
4) Tarping benefits will be optimized when combined with additional soil management practices (straw mulch, deep compost amended; Obj. 2).

Materials and methods:

We are using systems approach to investigate the effects of tarping, tillage, and soil management on soils, productivity, weeds, labor, and net returns to inform and guide farmers in RT and NT decision-making. Field experiments are being conducted (Yrs 1 and 2) at two locations: Freeville, NY (Cornell University -Thompson Vegetable Research Farm, Howard gravelly loam) and Monmouth, ME (University of Maine – Highmoor Farm, Woodbridge loam). We are leveraging two long-term permanent bed systems trials (LTPB), established in 2014, that have compared six tillage intensities ranging from conventional tillage to no-till. Within tillage treatments, three subplot treatments were: 1) unmulched, bare soil 2) annual 5 ton per acre applications of oat straw (ME) or rye hay (NY); and 3) annual manure-based deep compost (locally sourced, 4cm depth). Our research inherits these valuable management legacies from past treatments to address our research objectives. We are testing the effects of tarping, tillage, and additional soil management practices in a two year rotation that includes a direct seeded beet crop (Yr 1; 2020) and a double crop of lettuce and fall broccoli  (Yr 2; 2021). The sequence of field management and data sampling follows similar timelines across both research farm locations with some variation based on field conditions and planting dates. 

Objective 1: Evaluating tarping with deep, shallow, and no-tillage in a permanent bed system

While tarps have shown some potential to improve no-till systems, many farmers are still combining tarps with conventional tillage practices. Our goal is to understand how tarping changes soils, weed dynamics, crop performance, labor and equipment needs to improve success with RT and NT management.

Treatments: We are testing three different levels of tillage (deep, shallow and no-till) with and without tarping in a two year rotation that includes a direct seeded beet crop in Yr 1 (2020) and a double crop of lettuce and fall broccoli to be implemented in Yr 2 (2021). Tillage main plots consist of three 4ft beds, 75ft long on 6ft centers that are split into three soil management subplots (25ft each), detailed in Obj. 2. Conventional, deep tilled beds are rototilled to 8in depth. Shallow tillage (<4in) is implemented using a rototiller adjusted to minimum depth. Untarped tilled beds are tilled 2+ times based on soil conditions and planting date. A tractor based cultivation tool (overlapping beet knives) and hand tools (i.e. wheel hoe, flame weeder) are used in untarped no-till beds to undercut and remove weeds as necessary prior to planting. In ME, due to heavy weed pressure in untarped no-till beds, beets could not be planted and beds were tarped for the summer in an effort to maintain a no-till legacy and recover beds for future planting. For tilled and tarped treatments, tarps are applied following the first tillage event, left in place for at least 3 weeks, and removed at planting. No-till tarped beds are not disturbed prior to planting. 

Field Management (to date): Tarps were applied in late fall 2019 after flail mowing a broccoli crop and left in place overwinter in preparation for planting beets in yr 1 (Photo – Tarps applied). In spring, tarps were temporarily removed to implement tillage treatments (deep and shallow) and then reapplied for 3-4 weeks prior to planting beets. Beets (Boro) were planted by mid-June (3 rows per bed, 15in spacing) using a Jang seeder (Photo – Planting beets). In NY, overhead irrigation was applied after planting and as needed throughout the season. Irrigation is not possible in ME. Beets were weeded once using tractor based cultivation tools (between-row) and hand hoeing (in-row) at approximately 3 weeks after planting (Photo – Weeding beets). Beet stands were thinned 4-5 weeks after planting to not exceed 12 beets/ft. Beets were harvested by early August, 55-60 days after planting, based on crop maturity (Photo – Beets prior to harvest). After harvest, tillage treatments were applied, no till beds were hand weeded to remove mature weeds, and a cover crop of oats-field peas (100:50 lbs/ac) was drilled across the entire plot area in mid-August (Photo – Field in cover crop).

Data Collection and Analysis (to date): We are using a comprehensive set of field measurements to evaluate tarp and tillage effects on soils, weeds, labor, and crop yields. Soil temperature was measured continuously at the soil surface (0-4in, Hobo Pendant) during tarp application and summarized to daily averages. Soil moisture (% soil water content; 0-8in) was measured using a portable TDR probe (Spectrum Technologies) before tarp application, at tarp removal, and every 7-10 days through the season until crop harvest (5-6 samplings). Soil inorganic nitrogen (NO3-N and NH4-N; 0-0-8in) was sampled at beet planting to assess tarp and tillage effects on early season, plant available soil N. Prior to cultivation and in-row hand weeding, weed counts were taken by species as a measure of treatment effects on weed emergence (Photo – Counting early weeds). Beet populations were assessed at the time of thinning to measure treatment effects on beet stands (Photo – Counting and thinning beets). Weed competition with the beet crop was measured at crop harvest by counting weeds above the crop canopy by species and sampling total weed biomass. Total and marketable beet yields were determined by sampling roots and tops and sorting beets into size classes (Photo – Beet harvest). In the fall, cover crop biomass was sampled prior to winter kill (3 months after seeding) and sorted into oat, pea and weed biomass (Photo – Cover crop at sampling). Soils were collected in fall for bulk density to assess compaction (0-12in; 3 depth increments, Photo – Bulk density sampling) and to document changes in soil nutrients based on standard soil analyses (0-8in). All hand labor hours during the season were timed (e.g. applying fertility, bed preparation, handling tarps, hand weeding) and equipment operations recorded (e.g. tillage, planting, cultivations) to document total labor and equipment hours for use in crop budgets and to calculate net income per crop and over the rotation. All data is being analyzed for tillage and tarping effects using R statistical software.

Objective 2. Integrating tarps, tillage and additional soil management practices to optimize RT systems

Organic mulches (e.g. straw, hay) and soil amendments (e.g. compost) used in combination with RT can provide soil cover and suppress weeds while building organic matter, soil tilth and good moisture retention but there are tradeoffs with each of these approaches. We are testing how these additional soil management practices affect the functionality of tarps and success with RT and NT management.

Treatments: Within each of the tillage treatments described above we are investigating three contrasting soil management systems (SMS): 1) unmulched, bare soil 2) straw/rye hay mulch and 3) historic deep compost.

Field Management (to date): A moderate compost rate (5-6 tons/ac) was applied to all 3 SMS in spring 2019 with supplemental nitrogen (50 lbs/acre N) added as pelletized composted chicken manure (Krehers, 8-2-2). Straw/rye hay mulch (SMS 2) applied to the previous crop (2019) was left in place overwinter and hand raked to between-bed pathways prior to tillage and planting beets in Yr 1 (Photo – Tarping over mulch). No mulch was applied to the beet crop. Deep compost application in previous years resulted in over-accumulation of soil nutrients; the legacy of this practice is being examined in SMS 3.

Data Collection and Analysis: Sampling of soil temperature, soil moisture, soil nitrogen availability, weeds, crop stand, labor and yield are collected for subplot as described in Obj 1. We are analyzing data for mulch effects and tillage x tarp x mulch interactions. 

Research results and discussion:

We have summarized data across both locations and began analysis on a subset of the responses. We have preliminary analyses of our results that show treatment effects early in the season, including weed counts at cultivation (2-3 weeks after planting) and beet stands prior to thinning (4-5 weeks after planting). 

Weeds at Cultivation

We found differences in weed counts at 1st cultivation among tillage, tarping, and mulch treatments at both locations  (Results – Weed counts at cultivation). In NY, NT weed counts were greatest in bare ground and straw and deep compost management lowered weed density by more than 80%. This result shows how both straw and deep compost can reduce weed pressure for NT, however it does not account for any weeds that were present prior to planting that were removed by hand weeding (this effect will be analyzed in data on hand weeding time). In ME, we found this weed pressure in NT was too high to justify planting (no data shown) and tarping with NT provided a clean, seed bed for planting. In NY, we found that tillage and tarping reduced weed counts in deep compost and had no effect in bare ground and straw. In deep compost, tillage (ST and DT) increased weed emergence and tarping reduced weeds by as much as 91% (ST). In ME, weed pressure was generally much higher relative to NY and tarping had a greater effect on weed emergence in bare ground. Tarping over tilled, bared ground reduced weeds by as much as 86%. Tarping in deep compost had a similar effect and reduced weeds by 70-76%, which is consistent with results in NY. It is possible that tarps reduced weed counts in tilled soils by promoting the fatal germination of weed seeds and this effect may be greater in deep compost amended soils. We did not find any effects of tarping in straw at either location, though in ME, NTT had lower weed counts compared to a deep tilled and tarped system (DTT). Straw alone has shown to reduce weeds across tillage systems, especially winter annuals, which may reduce the impact of tarping on the weed seed bank.  

Beet Stand

We found tillage, tarping and mulch affected beet stand counts in NY while high variability in ME led to no detectable differences (Results – Beet stands). In NY, tarping improved beet germination in tilled soils within bare ground and deep compost and not in straw. In bare ground, stands in ST tarped soils were over 2 times greater than ST without tarping. One possible explanation for this result is the high weed cover in ST and DT, primarily chickweed, prior to tillage. Despite incorporation with tillage, it is likely that these weeds led to a poor and uneven seedbed for beets. Tarping prior to tillage effectively suppressed these early spring weeds and led to a clean, even, and possibly firmer seedbed that likely improved seed to soil contact for beet germination. This is consistent with our results in straw. When left in place overwinter, straw alone also provided early season suppression and a clean, low residue seed bed for planting when removed and raked into pathways for bed preparation and planting. We found beet stands were similar in NT and NTT, regardless of soil management, which could be attributed to hand weeding and removal of weeds in the NT treatment.  

Further analysis of soil conditions, including soil moisture and soil nitrate at planting, may help provide more explanation for both these results. We are continuing to analyze data on weeds at harvest, hand weeding labor, and marketable yields to further understand the impacts of these early season treatment responses.  

Participation Summary

Education

Educational approach:

To begin, we shared our project objectives and desired outcomes with 1,000 vegetable farmers in Maine, New York and other NE states through email and online newsletters. Three hundred will respond to a survey about their current tillage, tarps, compost and soil management and inform Dialogue Education (DE) workshops.

We had 112 farmers considering or using tarps participate in DE workshops on “Tarping for small-scale vegetables”. Three full-day workshops took place (NY and ME, two per state) targeting 30-40 farmers each (Winter ‘19). Facilitator Stewart, a CCE vegetable production educator, is trained in dialogue-based education practices (Vella 2002; Global Learning Partners 2017). Dialogue Education format helps farmers overcome the hurdle between acquiring new information and changing practice. The strategy generates excitement among participants, supports their ability to integrate others’ experiences, and empowers them to adopt new strategies. Farmers left with a field plan to help them think through tarping practices suitable to their farm.

DE Workshops followed this basic format:

  1. Understand the perceived needs of participants related to tarping, gauge baseline knowledge of tarping, soil management practices, and RT and group participants by similar needs, scale, etc.
  2. Using dialogue approach, present new information (research and invited speaker experiences) and strategies, followed by discussion of concerns, additional information from farmers, etc.
  3. In small groups, farmers work together with facilitators to draft their own management plans.
  4. Small groups share insights with the larger group, ensuring that knowledge is available to everyone. Remaining questions are addressed by the larger group.
  5. Small groups reconvene and refine plans based on additional information.
  6. Whole group discussion on projected economic and soil health benefits that might be realized by the proposed changes, guided by existing research.

In spring 2020, we connected with DE farmers via phone and email surveys to follow-up on tarping plans for the coming growing season. Farmers were asked to share their goals and intended tarping applications. All participants were invited to join our RT network and receive in-season research updates on research trials and share observations through Cornell Small Farm Program social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram). In winter 2020, we again used email surveys to invite all DE farmers to share what tarping practices they implemented and the benefits and challenges that they experienced. We followed up individually via email with all those that responded (27) to learn more and dig into details. This survey was also used to collect ideas for our tarping webinars to be offered in winter 2021. We plan to host 2-3 webinars to re-engage DE participants and others, share findings among farms, address knowledge gaps and help refine practices for the following year.

In summer 2021, we will work with 50 farmers to implement refined practices. We will host 2 on-station field days in summer 2021, resulting in 100 additional farmers improving their understanding of tarping and RT practices based upon research results. We will engage another 200 farmers in learning through winter meetings with farmer speakers who will describe their on-farm experiences (Winter ‘21-22).

In summer 2022, we will synthesize on-farm trial results from 50 DE farmers. Phone interviews will verify reported changes in practices and select farm stories will be shared widely through conference presentations, websites and popular articles (e.g. Small Farms Quarterly).

Milestones

Milestone #1 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

1. 300 small-scale vegetable farmers respond to a survey, sharing their current tillage, tarping, and soil management strategies and learning about our research goals (Oct ‘19).

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
300
Actual number of farmer beneficiaries who participated:
185
Proposed Completion Date:
October 31, 2019
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
December 1, 2019
Accomplishments:

In early October 2019, we developed and distributed an online survey (25 questions) to better understand how farmers across the region were using tarps, any challenges that they have experienced, and emerging questions that could be addressed through our research. The survey was shared through our established extension networks in NY and ME using electronic newsletters and grower lists, including our RT grower contact list in the Cornell Small Farms Program (400+). All registered workshop participants were also encouraged to complete the survey. 

We had a total of 158 respondents to the survey with from 75% from NY and ME. Of these responses, 94 (60%) were already using tarps on their farm and 64 were not using them. Those farms using tarps were generally very small, 90% were farming less than 5 acres. Almost all (98%) were using organic practices on some part of their farm. About half (49%) had a gross revenue less than $10,000/yr, while others represented a wide range of annual revenue: 20% between $10,000 and $50,000, 16% between $50,000 and $10,0000, and 15% grossed over $100,000. Sixty one percent were beginning farmers (41% farming less than 5 years and 20% between 5 and 10 year) and 39% were farming for 10 or more years. We asked respondents that were not currently using tarps what reasons prevented them from using tarps. Of these, 52% were considering using them and they were mostly concerned with their costs and/or uncertain about how they could fit in their crop rotation. 

This survey provides a better understanding the benefits, challenges, logistics, labor needs, tillage practices, weed issues, and compost management associated with tarping practices in the Northeast (Preliminary Results; Survey of Tarping Practices by Fresh Produce Growers). The survey captured a range of tarping experience, where 35% just started using tarps, 37% had found a couple uses, and 28% indicated tarps had become a big part of their farm management. Black plastic is the most common tarp material (83%) while some are using landscape fabric (13%) and clear plastic (3%).When asked where they are applying tarps, they are being used equally over permanent beds and shaped beds/open fields and were twice as likely to be placed over soil that was not cover cropped (48%) compared to cover cropped ground (20%). They are also commonly applied after harvest (over crop residue; 39%) and over sod (44%). Tarps are being used across many different crop types, including direct seeded and transplanted vegetables, herbs/flower and small fruit. The most targeted crop is leafy vegetables (including lettuce, spinach, and mixed greens; 73%) followed by root vegetables (including carrots and beets; 60%) and vining crops were the least likely to be tarped (34%). Tarps are most commonly left in place for 4-6 weeks (38%) and for more than 10 weeks (30%). The use of this extended tarp duration is likely related to using tarps overwinter to hold beds/fields for the following year. 

Based on the results of the survey, farmers are using tarps as a multifunctional tool to accomplish many different goals. A large majority of farmers are using tarps to reduce tillage and improve soils (87%) and are commonly used to increase early spring field access (84%). Eighty four percent of farmers indicated they were able to reduce their tillage with tarping. Farmers are able to reduce tillage in several different ways, using less cultivation (66%), using less intense tillage (41%), and using fewer tillage passes before planting (40%). Sixty percent indicated they were able to tarp and plant with no tillage. Tarps are clearly an important weed management tool and are being used to manage weeds in several different ways, including to hold beds weed-free before planting (83%), to create a stale seed bed (76%), to kill emerged weeds prior to planting (66%), and to kill weeds after crop harvest (64%). A considerably smaller number of farmers are using tarps to kill cover crops (36%). The greatest challenges associated with tarping are logistical, including moving tarps among fields (50%, moderately or very challenging), applying and securing tarps (41%), and handling water ponding on tarps (38%). Some farmers are also finding it challenging to find time in the crop rotation (28%). Farmers also prioritized research questions to help inform our research directions. Three primary research areas emerged: 1) tarping to control weeds 2) tarping impacts on soil health and 3) tarping to advance reduced-till and no-till practices.  

As members of members the NE IPM Tarping Working Group (2020-21), project members shared these results with a group of researchers, extension, and farmers (virtual meeting summer 2020). Further analysis of survey results will be completed with more results disseminated in future reporting periods.

Milestone #2 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

2. 120 farmers participate in Dialogue Education (DE) workshops (60 in both NY and ME, 2 workshops in each state) that foster peer-to-peer learning, support evaluation of current tillage systems, and result in crop and rotation field plans to implement reduced tillage and tarping strategies (Feb ‘20). Participants, farmer advisors and workshop findings help refine research station treatments (NY, ME), which are implemented Spring ‘20.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
120
Actual number of farmer beneficiaries who participated:
112
Proposed Completion Date:
February 29, 2020
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
November 19, 2019
Accomplishments:

In late September 2019, we announced our project and four full-day workshops, Tarping for Reduced Tillage in Small-Scale Vegetable Systems, targeting farmers interested in adopting or improving tarping practices on their farm. Workshops were advertised widely, using established extension networks in NY and ME, electronic newsletters and grower lists, social media (Instagram, Facebook), and our RT grower contacts within the Cornell Small Farms Program (400+). Workshop locations and venues were chosen to recruit farmers across the project region and in partnership with cooperative extension and non-profit partners based on location. We offered three of the four advertised workshops: 1) Northport, ME at the MOFGA Farmer to Farmer Pre-Conference on Nov. 2nd (45 participants) 3) Canandaigua, NY at Cornell Cooperative Extension-Ontario County (CNY; 39 participants) and 4) Voorheesville, NY at Cornell Cooperative Extension – Albany County (ENY; 28 participants). We cancelled a planned workshop in Springvale, ME to be held at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension of York County on Nov. 4th, based on low attendance and considering the state-wide appeal of the MOFGA Pre-Conference workshop. We registered a total of 133 participants and 112 attended across the three workshops offered. At registration, we collected information on tarping experience and asked for the most important topics/questions to inform workshop design. 

Workshops were designed with two primary goals: 1) learn how we can use tarping to overcome barriers to reducing tillage in vegetables while managing weeds and improving soil health, and 2) identify specific changes we can make to farm management in the next year resulting in reduced tillage, better weed management, and greater profitability. Each workshop agenda followed a similar general format with presentations by a combination of researchers and invited farmer presentations (2 per workshop) followed small group breakouts/activities based on topic (Example Tarping Workshop Agenda). Content was structure into three general topical areas: 1) tarping as a RT and NT management tool 2) Weed management and tarp tactics and 3) Tarps and soil building. Workshops were designed and facilitated using a Dialogue Education (DE) approach (Example Facilitation Plan) to engage farmers in new information/ideas followed by facilitated small group discussion to integrate ideas, share concerns, and identify additional information needed. We began each workshop with an inventory of current tarping practices/goals and prioritizing issues to discuss through the day. The workshop ended with an individual exercise to give farmers the opportunity to outline changes to farm management using tarping (Farmer Field Plan). This template will be used to support farmers in trialing new practices in coming year. Overall, this workshop approach balanced new information with discussion to gives farmer time to think though and talk about new tarping strategies. One farmer shared “This was one of the BEST workshops that I have attended—ever. So much practical information. So many examples! Both farmer AND researcher info. Interactive, so well-organized with so little fluff or distraction. This workshop was exceptionally useful”. Another said “Presenters kept us engaged, informed and enthusiasm made this an interesting and informative workshop!”

Evaluations from workshops gathered feedback on knowledge gained, specific new ideas learned, and tarping ideas for the coming year. A total of 78 evaluations were collected representing 70% of attendees, with a majority (65) representing farmers (Workshop Evaluation). Sixty five percent of responses rated the overall quality of the workshops as “Excellent” and another 30% rated it as “Good”. Evaluations collected metrics on the amount of knowledge gained based on farmer knowledge before the workshop. For example, in ENY, before the workshop 14% had either a moderate amount or a lot of knowledge (4 or 5 rating) on the logistics of tarping and after the workshop this increased to 75%. This dramatic change in knowledge gain was similar with other topics: reduced tillage (from 7% to 64%), weed management (7% to 80%), cover crops (11% to 72%) and crop rotation planning (4% to 62%). We had a similar impact at other workshops. On the topic of reducing tillage, farmer knowledge levels (4 or 5 rating) went from 16% to 83% (WNY) and from 24 to 88% (ME). Attendees shared the most interesting lessons learned and 1 to 2 examples of how they will use the information on their farm in the coming year, including: how they can address tarping logistics (storing, securing, moving tarps), combine tarping with winter hardy cover crops for effective termination, using tarping for perennial weed control, and tarp timing and duration for different crops and in a rotation (New Tarping Ideas and actions).

Milestone #3 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

3. 90 DE farmers and others participate in follow-up discussions via webinars, online surveys, email and phone to discuss and refine RT and tarping field plans for the coming year (Mar ‘20). Additional in-person winter training opportunities provide further support to farmers in on-farm planning and decision-making.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
90
Actual number of farmer beneficiaries who participated:
30
Proposed Completion Date:
March 31, 2020
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
May 15, 2020
Accomplishments:

In late winter and early spring, we followed up with DE attendees via email and phone to learn about their tarping plans and ideas that had emerged since the fall workshops. All 112 DE participants were contacted in via email and about 10% (12 farmers) responded to a quick online survey sharing how they were planning to use tarps, their specific goals for tarping, and any issues or concerns (Spring 2020 planning). These responses gave us intentions for the coming year and led to follow up communications to help think though ideas and address concerns. We reached an additional 18 farmers through a combination of email, one-on-one phone consultations and online meetings to gather more detailed plans that helped us get into specific tarping applications in the season based on developing crop plans. We reached fewer DE farmers than expected in early spring, which in part could be attributed to the unprecedented challenges and uncertainties that emerged for farmers with the outbreak of COVID-19. We also recognized that our DE workshops reached some aspiring and beginning farms, many that had not yet acquired or used tarps, so they may have had less capacity to implement or trial the practice in the first year.   

We followed up on interest generated by DE workshops and engaged a wider audience with 6 additional presentations and facilitated discussions for farmers interested in learning about tarping and RT practices on their farm. Our team reached an additional 225 farmers and educators through these workshops: 

  • Tarping for weed control. 12/11/19. New England Vegetable and Fruit Conference. Manchester, NH. 50 farmers, 0.5 hr.
  • Tarping for weed control. Catskill Regional Agriculture Conference. 01/09/20. Delhi, NY. 28 farmers, 1 hr.
  • Digging deep into compost: Using compost in NT production. 01/17/20. NOFA-NY Winter Conference. Syracuse, NY. 75 farmers. 2.5 hrs.
  • Reduced tillage systems for small scale organic vegetables. 02/05/20. In partnership with Kootenay and Boundary Farm Advisors (BC, Canada). Webinar. 20 farmers. 1.5 hrs.
  • Survey of tarping practices by fresh produce growers. 07/13/20. NE IPM Tarping Working Group. Webinar. 15 educators. 15 min.
  • Tarping weeds in reduced tillage organic vegetables. 11/04/20. CCE Ag-Inservice: Rapid research talks. Webinar. 40 educators. 10 min.
Milestone #4 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

4. Of the 120 farmers who participated in DE workshops, 60 test field plans with alternative management of tarping to reduce tillage (Oct ‘20).

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
60
Actual number of farmer beneficiaries who participated:
56
Proposed Completion Date:
October 31, 2020
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
December 31, 2020
Accomplishments:

We gathered farmer intentions for on-farm tarp applications in spring through phone, email, and a short survey (30) and then collected feedback from farmers on how they implemented tarps at the end of the season (26). We exchanged emails/texts with farmers over the course of the season and had intended to do several visits but did not travel given COVID 19 concerns and restrictions. 

Milestone #5 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

5. 50 DE farmers report findings via year-end surveys and phone interviews, highlighting field observations, crop and labor impacts, and knowledge gaps and suggest refinements to improve results (Dec ‘20). General summaries of on-farm and on-station research are shared through local farmer meetings and electronic media.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
50
Actual number of farmer beneficiaries who participated:
26
Proposed Completion Date:
December 31, 2020
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
December 31, 2020
Accomplishments:

In early December, we followed up with all 112 DE attendees via email and asked for farmers to share and reflect on their tarping trials this year via a short, online survey. About 25% of DE attendees (26 farmers) responded to our survey and shared how they used tarps (Winter 2020 applications), what benefits they found, any issues or concerns that they had (Winter 2020 problems), and if they are planning to try it again next year. Tarps provided a number of benefits based upon these on-farm applications, including:

  • Less tillage. 53% used less intense tillage (e.g. shallower or gentler tools) and 31% made fewer tillage passes.
  • Greater flexibility in field management. 65% found tarps helped hold beds weed-free until needed and 46% found tarps helped with spring field access.  
  • Better weed management. 62% found fewer weeds and 58% spent less time hand weeding.
  • Improvements in crop establishment and yields. 53% found better soil conditions for planting (e.g. moisture, tilth) and 23% found better crop yields.

The challenges shared emphasized the logistical problems with tarps, holding and securing, hauling sandbags, and moving across the field. Based on these reflections, 39% of farmers will definitely implement the same practice in the next year and another 58% will implement the practice again with some changes to improve on it. 

Through our survey, we also collected ideas on what more they want to learn to help us plan a series of webinars, TarpTalks, later this winter. Many farmers (11) expressed a strong interest in sharing what they have tried and learned with others. Based on this feedback, we anticipate a workshop series that addresses a broad range of targeted applications that enhance weed control with less tillage, including tarping in succession plantings, tarping with landscape fabric, and applications of tarps with cover crops.

Given their feedback on their experiences and interests in the coming year, we have completed individual email follow-ups to learn more details, gather pictures, discuss ideas, and maintain connected in the coming year. 

Milestone #6 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

6. 90 DE farmers and others are re-engaged via 2-3 webinars to learn results of on-farm experiments, share findings, and refine on tarping and RT practices. Webinar topics address farmer interest and knowledge gaps identified in follow-up surveys (Feb ‘21).

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
90
Proposed Completion Date:
February 28, 2021
Status:
In Progress
Milestone #7 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

7. 50 DE farmers (some continuing, others new) implement refined field plans to test tarping and RT practices on farm (Oct ‘21).

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
50
Proposed Completion Date:
October 31, 2021
Status:
In Progress
Milestone #8 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

8. 100 additional farmers improve their understanding of tarping and reduced tillage management practices based upon research results shared at on-station field days (Aug ‘21). One year of research data will be shared with participants.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
100
Proposed Completion Date:
August 31, 2021
Status:
In Progress
Milestone #9 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

9. 100 additional farmers report knowledge gained on reduced tillage and tarping practices through winter conferences (Feb ‘22). Several DE farmers speak at meetings and describe farm management changes based on experience with on-farm trials. Two years of research data will be shared.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
100
Proposed Completion Date:
February 28, 2022
Status:
In Progress
Milestone #10 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

10. 40 DE farmers report on changes to their management, labor use and profitability based upon onfarm trial findings via surveys and phone interviews (Nov ‘22).

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
40
Proposed Completion Date:
November 30, 2021
Status:
In Progress

Milestone Activities and Participation Summary

5 Webinars / talks / presentations
3 Workshop field days

Participation Summary

282 Farmers
55 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities

Learning Outcomes

65 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
4 Service providers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of project outreach
4 Agricultural service providers reported changes in knowledge, skills, and/or attitudes as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

November 2019. We offered 3 full day workshops that combined researchers and invited farmer presentations followed small group breakouts/activities based on topic. Workshops were designed and facilitated used a Dialogue Education (DE) approach to engage farmers in new information/ideas followed by facilitated small group discussion to integrate ideas, share concerns, and identify additional information needed. We began each workshop with an inventory of current tarping practices/goals and prioritizing issues to discuss through the day and ended with an exercise to outline a farm-specific management change using tarps. In evaluations, all participants were asked to characterize their knowledge before and after the workshop based on five tarping topics: 1) logistics, 2) reducing tillage, 3) weed management, 4) soil building with cover crop, mulch and/or compost and 5) planning for tarps in rotations.

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.