Improving Production and Yield of Winter Greens in the Northeast

Progress report for LNE20-402

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2020: $84,948.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2022
Grant Recipient: UMass Extension Vegetable Program
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
Susan Scheufele
UMass Extension Vegetable Program
Expand All

Project Information

Performance Target:

125 Northeast growers adopt at least one new best management practice in a total of 250 high tunnels. These farmers report an average yield of 0.5 lb/sq ft, and increased off-season revenue totaling $525,000 annually.

Introduction:

Problem and Justification: Consumer demand for fresh, local greens in winter is limitless, and production is not nearly meeting demand, representing a huge opportunity to increase financial sustainability of individual farms and sustainability of our Northeast regional food system.  Production of greens during winter is limited by three major factors: low-yielding production practices, poor stand associated with damping-off, and reduced yields caused by emerging diseases, especially downy mildews, which can cause 100% losses.

Downy mildews (DM) can be managed effectively by planting resistant varieties, but a gap in knowledge exists among growers and seed representatives, and the best varieties with broad DM-resistance are not being planted in the Northeast. Furthermore, intensive year-round production in high-tunnels leads to poor soil health and increased pressure from soil-borne diseases, especially damping-off, causing poor stand. Finally, growers could increase yields by increasing planting density, planting higher-yielding varieties, using more efficient irrigation and fertility practices, or modifying harvest systems.

Over 2,000 organic and conventional greens growers and agricultural service providers across the Northeast could benefit from education about emerging diseases, and more modern production systems. Other benefits include: generating off-season revenue, maintaining farming jobs and customer relationships over the off-season, lowering financial risk by increasing crop diversity, and improving soil health in high-tunnels.

Solution and Approach: On-farm surveys of current production practices and on-farm case studies on profitability of different production systems will provide a foundation for education on improving production and yield of winter greens. Connecting with technical advisers in major greens production areas will bring expertise about complicated diseases and knowledge about modern techniques to our region. Research will be conducted to assess productivity of DM-resistant varieties under Northeast winter growing conditions, impacts of seed priming on germination and stand, and use of green manures to increase soil microbial health, reducing soil-borne disease and increasing crop establishment and yield.

Milestones and Performance Target:

  • >2,000 growers and agricultural service providers learn about project activities and increase knowledge on winter greens production and profitability, current status of DM across the region, and disease management using resistant varieties
  • 350 growers and agricultural service providers attend or view webinars to increase knowledge on CA production practices, DM biology and management, and use of resistant varieties
  • 300 growers attend workshops and field days and increase knowledge of cost-effective production methods
  • 200 growers who attend educational programs express interest in improving their winter greens production efficiency and receive follow-up from project team
  • 125 growers plant a resistant variety or adopt another improved winter-greens production practice (e.g. increased plant density, more efficient harvest methods, etc.) in 250 high-tunnels across the Northeast, achieving yields up to 0.50 pounds/ft2, increasing off-season revenue by $525,000 and enhancing sustainability of year-round local food systems

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Genevieve Higgins (Educator and Researcher)
  • Jim Correll (Educator and Researcher)

Research

Hypothesis:

Profitability of winter greens production is directly related to plant establishment and disease prevention. Our research program is aimed at increasing yield by improving germination, increasing planting density, and reducing disease including damping-off and downy mildews. Replicated on-farm trials will address the following hypotheses:

  1. New varieties offer improved resistance to disease and improved growth under winter growing conditions.
  2. Increasing active soil organic matter can reduce damping-off and increase plant stand
  3. Increasing germination by priming seed before planting can increase plant stand
  4. Increasing plant density up to 4 million seeds/A can lead to increased yield
Materials and methods:

Spinach high tunnel variety trial at the UMass Research Farm, before the first harvest. December 8, 2020.
Harvesting spinach from the high tunnel variety trial. December 22, 2020.
Spinach high tunnel variety trial at the UMass Research Farm, before the first harvest. December 8, 2020.

All experiments will be conducted at the UMass Crop and Animal Research and Education Farm in South Deerfield, MA, in an existing 30×96’ Rimol high tunnel. Soil will be prepared and fertilizers added based on soil test results in late-September and treatments will be planted by October 15 in randomized complete blocks with four replications of each treatment in plots measuring 4’x2’. Spinach will be irrigated and side-dressed as needed according to soil moisture probes checked weekly and pre-sidedress nitrate tests taken monthly.

1. Variety trials, winter 2020-21 and 2021-22: In Fall 2020, a spinach variety trial was set up to test this hypothesis at the UMass Crop & Livestock Research & Education Farm in South Deerfield, MA. This trial is being managed by G. Higgins of UMass. 18 spinach varieties were chosen for evaluation, taking into consideration recommendations by seed production and distribution company representatives. Varieties were chosen for their downy mildew resistance and for their growth speed under winter tunnel conditions. All varieties were seeded on October 18, 2020, at a rate of 3 million seeds/A, with 4 replications of each variety in a randomized complete block design. Germination and vigor data has been collected since then, with the first harvested expected in mid-/late-December. Pre-sidedress nitrate tests were taken on November 23 and December 15. This trial is expected to be completed by March 2021. There is currently no downy mildew present in this trial.

Treatments: 15-35 spinach varieties, suggested by seed production and distribution company representatives for comprehensive DM resistance and winter performance, will be evaluated per season.

Methods: Varieties will be planted at a seeding density of 3 million seeds/A in plots as described above.

Data Collection and Analysis: We will assess germination, stand, vigor, and disease severity (%) weekly, and marketable yield will be evaluated 2-3 times depending on plant re-growth. All data will be analyzed using standard statistical analyses such as ANOVA or General linear models with appropriate post-hoc tests.

2. Improving plant stand, winter 2021-22

Treatments: The impact of cover crop residue as a pre-plant soil amendment on seedling emergence and suppression of damping off caused by Rhizoctonia solani, Pythium spp., and Phythophthora spp. will be evaluated compared to an untreated control and a compost-amended soil. The effect of seed priming will be evaluated as a split-plot factor in this full factorial design, and half the seed will be primed before planting and the other half will be planted without priming.

Methods: Fresh cover crop from an actively growing field of buckwheat will be mowed and the residues will be incorporated into field soil at a rate of 5% w/w during soil prep for planting. After three weeks, spinach seed will be planted using a split-plot design with four replications of each treatment arranged in randomized complete blocks, with soil amendment as the whole plot factor and seed priming or seeding density as the split plot factor. Seed will be primed as follows: soak 24 hours in distilled water, air dry for 48 hours, and maintain for 8 days in a cool dark location.

Data Collection and Analysis: We will assess germination, stand, vigor, damping off severity (%) weekly, and marketable yield will be evaluated 2-3 times depending on plant re-growth. All data will be analyzed using standard statistical analyses such as ANOVA or General linear models with appropriate post-hoc tests.

Farmer Input: Input from growers on our project advisory board, from our UMass Extension Stakeholder Group, and also from other projects e.g. NE-SARE project LNE15-343 and the Frozen Ground Grower Network was solicited before developing these experimental questions and methods.

Research results and discussion:

Data collection for the winter 2020-21 spinach variety trial is in progress.

Participation Summary

Education

Educational approach:
Seeding spinach at one of our case study farms for this project. October 12, 2020.

4 farms signed on to be anonymous winter spinach production case-studies. These farms completed an extensive intake form with information about their winter spinach production practices and are currently tracking their spinach labor and yields, which will be used to create enterprise budgets in spring 2021. These farms are visited bi-weekly to monitor their progress, consult on crop production questions, and document production practices.

Virtual Winter Greens Field Day is planned for January 14, 2021, where J. Correll (University of Arkansas) will present on spinach downy mildew, G. Higgins will present the current high tunnel spinach variety trial, and S. Scheufele will present on other diseases of winter greens.

Wrote fact sheet on Cladosporium leaf spot of spinach and posted online and distributed through Veg Notes newsletter (3500 subscribers).
Fact Sheet: Spinach, Cladosporium Leaf Spot

Milestones

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

1,680 growers, agricultural service providers, and industry representatives learn about project activities, educational programs, and read newsletter articles on results of spinach variety trials and increase knowledge on current outbreaks of DM across the region, and learn about higher-yielding, disease-resistant varieties of lettuce and spinach. Of these, 250 growers and 25 ag service providers sign up to receive future notifications and information about ways to get involved including educational events and participation in the on-farm production survey.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
250
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
25
Proposed Completion Date:
June 1, 2020
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

Timely alerts of spinach downy mildew outbreaks have been sent out to growers and ag service providers via the Veg Notes newsletter (3500 subscribers).

January 2021 Virtual Spinach Field Day was advertised to growers and ag service providers through Veg Notes newsletter and other regional Extension newsletters.

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

Attend or view webinars to increase knowledge on winter greens production methods, downy mildew biology and management through use of resistant varieties, and other common greens diseases and issues such as damping-off

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
300
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
50
Proposed Completion Date:
March 1, 2021
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

1 winter greens webinar planned for January 2021, with 52 attendees currently registered.

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

Attend on-farm workshops and field days and increase knowledge of downy mildew resistant-varieties and cost-effective production methods (results of regional high tunnel production survey)

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
200
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
30
Proposed Completion Date:
July 31, 2021
Status:
In Progress
Milestone #4 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

Growers who attend educational programs and express interest in improving their winter greens production efficiency receive resources to help them implement and track changes including yield, and receive follow-up from project team in-person or by phone and email.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
125
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
30
Proposed Completion Date:
March 31, 2022
Status:
In Progress
Milestone #5 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

Growers receive diagnostic support in the event of winter greens disease outbreaks on their farms. Samples are collected and shipped to collaborating labs for typing, and the results are communicated back to growers and shared with the Extension community to document emerging disease outbreaks.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
20
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
30
Actual number of farmer beneficiaries who participated:
4
Proposed Completion Date:
March 31, 2022
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

4 spinach downy mildew isolates have been sent out for race identification to date.

Milestone Activities and Participation Summary

5 Consultations
1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Published press articles, newsletters

Performance Target Outcomes

Target #1

Target: number of farmers:
125
Target: change/adoption:

Northeast growers adopt at least one new best management practice in a total of 250 high tunnels. These farmers report an average yield of 0.5 lb/sq ft, and increased off-season revenue totaling $525,000 annually.

Target: amount of production affected:

250 high-tunnels across the Northeast

Target: quantified benefit(s):

Achieve yields of up to 0.50 pounds/sq ft, resulting in an increase in off-season revenue by $525,000.

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.