Progress report for LNE22-445
Fifty new northern New England vegetable growers will each adopt three recommended best practices (BP) to manage their high-tunnel crops on a total of ~200,000 sq. ft., and 75% will meet their annual economic and crop production goals. BPs will be tailored to their individual production goals, and include scouting for pests, diseases and nutrient deficiencies; handling problems proactively and amending cropping areas based on soil tests.
Problem/Opportunity: Northeastern climatic conditions are changing. Weather events are more extreme and less predictable. Production within high tunnels extends the growing season and provides more consistent growing conditions, allowing for cultivation of sensitive high-value crops. Growing vegetables in protected environments is critical to ensure a stable supply of locally-grown produce year-round and for the long-term sustainability and economic viability of diversified agriculture in the Northeast. We estimate >18,000 high tunnels cover >36 million sq.ft in the Northeast, with numbers increasing annually aided in part by USDA-NRCS incentive programs. While some growers have used high tunnels for decades, many are new. The number of young, new and beginning producers in US agriculture is increasing whereby producers in operation for <5 years increased 17% from 2012-2017, particularly in the East, and 25-40% of Northeastern farms were operated by new/beginning producers. Over 11% of producers in six of the 13 Northeastern states were ≤35 years old. Many lack knowledge about unique high-tunnel soil fertility demands and pest/disease management. Regional surveys of high tunnel growers reported implementation levels for key best practices, showing gaps in adoption to include in future educational programs. For example, most growers did routine scouting and maintained good ventilation, but <50% used beneficials or microbial insecticides, requested pest/disease id from specialists or used trap/indicator/habitat plants; <60% felt confident calculating fertilizer rates, 50% did soil tests, and 30% tested soluble salts. This project’s team members are frequently contacted by producers with new tunnels, who seek assistance with crop selection and management, and developing water/nutrient and pest management plans. Evaluations from previous events demonstrate that new producers are intimidated by highly technical, advanced discussions and ask for the basics. Best practices (BP) exist for high-tunnel production, but are splintered and hard to assimilate. A guide of current BPs is needed that compiles the multiple components together. There are conferences for growers to learn about high-tunnel production, but new growers need one-on-one, hands-on training tailored to their knowledge level and goals, supplemented with web-based educational materials to adopt them. Through this project we will meet growers where they are, with more basic information and practical resources.
Solution and Approach: A 3-pronged educational program will introduce new growers to integrated approaches for managing arthropod pests, diseases, and soil fertility in high-tunnel vegetables. 1) New VT and NH growers will receive one-on-one training from team members. Growers will identify their crop production/protection goals to ensure training meets their specific needs. Site visits and on-line sessions will be held to develop crop production plans. On-farm demonstrations will showcase adoption of BPs and connect new and experienced growers to share knowledge as part of a learning community. 2) Information from grower interactions will inform development of educational materials, which will be compiled into a High-Tunnel Production Toolkit for both new and experienced growers in a user-friendly format. 3) Workshop sessions targeted to needs of new growers will be held at our established regional high-tunnel conferences. These conferences continue a 7-year tradition and are tailored for growers of all skill levels across the Northeast. BP adoption will be tracked through surveys and personal interviews to determine which practices offer the greatest benefits in terms of crop yield and quality.
Our three-pronged educational program will introduce new growers to integrated approaches for managing arthropod pests, diseases, and soil fertility in high-tunnel vegetables; while expanding knowledge among experienced growers.
Engagement: As described above, our project team has strong links with growers and ag service providers within their state and regionally, and extensive past and present experience working with growers and participating in educational events. These connections will be used to recruit new high-tunnel growers for the individualized program; encourage grower attendance at our onsite and online sessions; solicit input on grower production needs; and disseminate resources we produce. The team members work directly with growers, in multiple capacities, including identifying pests and diseases; advising on IPM and soil/crop fertility plans and variety selection; presenting information at state and regional workshops/conferences; and serving on regional vegetable production committees. In addition, UVM maintains several active email lists linking growers regionally. Through these diverse functions, the team has an established reputation for meeting grower production needs. Recruitment of grower participants will be done by word-of-mouth to the vast network of UNH and UVM Extension personnel and via our grower email lists. We will also circulate information via state/regional websites and newsletters (VT Agriview, Morning Ag Clips, NE IPM Center, etc.). We will work individually with 18 new growers (6/year) through a multi-step educational program, in which growers will receive intensive support in year one with on-site visits, which will be phased out over 2 years. As growers come on board they will receive additional support networks via email, telephone and farmer-to-farmer webinars. By design, educational programs will be tailored to needs identified by each grower to ensure they receive the assistance they want to overcome production challenges. In addition, the proposed High Tunnel Toolkit (see curriculum section) will be a compilation of resources (factsheets, webinettes, videos) to provide information to the 18 growers who receive intensive training, and the broader audience of new and experienced high-tunnel growers. The toolkit will be accessible online at the UVM high-tunnel website and will be designed to be as grower-friendly as possible, using brief focused documents or videos with lots of pictures, and minimal words. Sessions within NE high-tunnel conferences will be presented that focus specifically on the needs of new high-tunnel growers, drawing on our experiences with the 18 growers with whom we work intensively.
Learning: The content of our educational programs will be an evolving process based on feedback and input from participating growers and will be responsive to their knowledge level. Though we will focus on needs of new growers, experienced producers and technical service providers will also benefit from our programs. In Year 1, we will rely on information generated from a recent survey of New England high-tunnel producers conducted by the team. It revealed that many growers did not feel comfortable calculating fertilizer rates, were unsure about irrigation strategies, and were concerned about soluble-salt buildup. A majority said that identification tools for diseases and pests, lists of pest-resistant varieties, management tools for specific pests/diseases, and guidelines for high-tunnel fertility management would be useful. The following production issues were identified problems: foliar diseases, insect damage to fruit, and fruit cracking. Growers listed the following resources as those that would be very helpful: web-based pest management information, action thresholds, lists of resistant plant varieties, identification tools for diseases, pests and nutrient deficiencies, biocontrol guidelines for high tunnels and guidelines for soil fertility and irrigation. All these subjects will be included in the toolkit and a focus of online and onsite educational events.
Evaluation: For the 18 new growers, we will conduct pre- and post-season surveys of their production challenges in person or via email or telephone. Pre-season surveys will determine their learning goals. Post-season surveys will substantiate BP adoption, and provide insights into why adoption may not have occurred and how to improve modes of information delivery. Growers will be asked if BP adoption contributed to their achievement of annual economic and crop production goals. Attendees to onsite and online educational programs (webinars, demonstrations, conferences) will be surveyed to determine program content usefulness. Growers will be asked how long they have used high tunnels; results will be analyzed to detect differences relative to experience. Growers will be surveyed regarding their educational needs to improve production and resource gaps. They will also be asked how they prefer to receive information that helps them manage their high-tunnel production challenges. These surveys will enable us to track changes in adoption of key best practices over the project period.
- Engagement: 3 new high-tunnel growers and 4 service providers take part in advisory committee meetings to develop appropriate and useful educational programs and resources on high-tunnel vegetable production and provide input on how to refine and improve educational content and project delivery. Completion: December 2024. All project team members will take part in the meetings, M. Skinner will coordinate meetings and summarize outcomes. At least one meeting will be held annually.
Milestone 1: Participation by the Advisory Committee. Attendance at these meetings and the extent of contributions provided by the members will serve as a way to assess the effectiveness of the committee. A summary of the outcomes from the meetings will document results.
M1 Progress: The first advisory committee meeting was held on January 23, 2023 (15 attendees). We discussed planned activities such as the upcoming webinar series, factsheet topics and additional links to add to our project webpage. A summary of the meeting was prepared.
- Learning: 18 new high-tunnel growers participate in intensive one-on-one hands-on training programs throughout the 3-year project period to learn about pest/disease, irrigation and soil fertility of high-tunnel vegetables, working with project staff to develop/implement individualized plans to address their specific challenges. All will take part in pre- and post-production evaluations to assess their adoption of new practices. Completion: November 2024. All project team members will work with growers, M. Skinner will compile impact results.
Milestone 2. Hands-on one-on-one training program for new growers. This type of program has been used by the UVM Entomology Research Lab group for several years for their IPM One-on-One program for greenhouse ornamentals and found it an effective means of identifying individual grower needs and goals as well as determining the level of adoption of new practices. Some growers have reduced their chemical insecticide use by 90% because of that program. The 18 new high-tunnel growers from VT and NH recruited for the program will be asked to complete a pre-season survey to identify their priorities in terms of learning new best practices (BPs) appropriate for their operation. This survey will be adapted from one UVM has used in the past which effectively determined grower needs. Through the pre-season survey, we will gather data on the length of time they have grown vegetables in high tunnels, the area of high-tunnel production, challenges to their production, and gaps in their knowledge. This will serve as the basis for their training program. Because the training is individualized for each grower, specific BPs cannot be specified here. The same growers will be asked to complete a post-season survey by email or telephone, or both. Results will demonstrate growers if adopted the BPs introduced to them, and if the BP resulted in increased crop yield or quality, or reduced production costs. Interviews will enable us to determine why a BP was not adopted. If it is a result of how the training was done, changes in the mode of outreach will be redesigned. If it is because the BP wasn’t practical or suitable, revisions to the BP itself will be considered.
M2 Progress: We enlisted 10 new growers (including advisory committee growers) who would like one-on-one training on their farms. We have been actively working with two and will be increasing engagement with others in early 2023. We have created a database of new growers in VT and NH which will help recruit others to take part in project activities.
- Engagement/Evaluation: Of 600 growers who receive a survey about their current high-tunnel fertilization and pest management practices and challenges via email; 125 complete it (20% participation). Results will form basis of educational programs and High-Tunnel Toolkit content. Two surveys will be conducted: May 2022 and December 2024. Completion: January 2025. Project team will assist with developing and distributing surveys, M. Skinner will compile results.
Milestone 3. Regional Grower Surveys. An online survey of high tunnel vegetable growers will be conducted in Year 1 and 3 of the project. This will be adapted from one conducted by Becky Sideman and other project team members in 2016 and 2019. That survey focused specifically on high-tunnel tomato production. The scope of our survey will be expanded to include other crops grown in high tunnels and information about how long they have been growing vegetables in high tunnels. By using the basic format of the past survey, it will be possible to assess changes in grower adoption over an 8-year period. We will send a link for the survey to all email lists associated with vegetable production. We anticipate at least 600 growers will receive the survey and 125 will complete it (20% participation). Through this survey, participants will be asked what their major pest, disease, soil fertility and irrigation issues are in high tunnel vegetable production. They will also be asked for information on current cropping practices and use of key BPs. They will also be asked in what format would they prefer information to address these issues. Results from this survey will form the basis of the content of the Toolkit and educational subjects of the Year 1 conference.
M3 Progress: A survey has been modified and will be distributed in February 2023 to several listservs maintained reaching over 3,500 growers. We also compiled a list of high tunnel growers in VT and VT to disseminate this to. Results will be compiled in summer 2023. The New England High Tunnel Conference was moved to Dec. 2024 to keep pace with alternating with the New England Vegetable and Fruit Conference (NEVFC). Sessions for new growers are planned for that event.
- Engagement and Evaluation: Of the 50 new growers and 150 experienced growers who attend one of our events, 50% will use a high-tunnel soil test the following season, and 40% will implement soil nutrient recommendations. Two follow up surveys (winter/spring 2023; winter 2024) will be sent to participants to document practice adoption and resulting changes in crop quality and yield. Completion: December 2024. R. Maden will lead follow ups and document results.
Milestone 4. Soil testing and nutrient management. Growers at various educational events, including our conferences, and online and onsite educational events, will be surveyed throughout the project to determine changes in grower adoption of routine soil testing procedures and their level of implementation of recommendations. We anticipate reaching at least 200 new and experienced growers, and obtaining a survey participation rate of 20%. Barriers to adoption will be determined and adjustments made in our Toolkit to overcome the barriers.
M4 Progress: A checklist of BPs was created for use during routine site visits to assess topic adoption (i.e. soil testing). Adoption will be assessed in year 3.
- Engagement and Evaluation. Of the 50 new growers and 150 experienced growers who attend our high-tunnel educational events, 25 new growers and 25 experienced growers will share documentation of soil test results, soil nutrient inputs, planting dates, plant density, crop harvest quantity and quality. April 2022, 2023, 2024. Completion: December 2024. R. Maden will coordinate surveys and analyze the data.
Milestone 5. Soil testing and nutrient management impact. Growers at various educational events, including our conferences, and online and onsite educational events, will be surveyed throughout the project to determine grower adoption of soil testing and the benefits of their inputs based on crop harvest quality and quantity. We anticipate reaching at least 200 new and experienced growers, and obtaining a survey participation rate of 20%.
M5 Progress: To be assessed in year 3.
- Learning: 500 growers learn key best practices via a newsletter to the GreenGrower email list containing seasonal information regarding current pest issues, reminders about carrying out time-sensitive production tasks, tips on pest, disease, irrigation and soil fertility management, and announcements for regional educational events. This will occur quarterly (Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter) until January 2025. Readership number will be tracked by C.F. Sullivan and subscribers will be surveyed annually.
Milestone 6. Newsletter articles. A quarterly newsletter for growers subscribing to the online grower list Greengrower will be produced with articles of seasonal applicability. Currently the email list has 400 subscribers, but we anticipate an increase to at least 500 when we begin to provide regular updates and educational material. The effectiveness of the articles will be assessed by how many read them, and increases in readership over time. Subscribers will be surveyed to determine usefulness of the newsletter.
M6 Progress: This will be established in years 2-3.
- Learning: 100 new and experienced high-tunnel growers attend educational events in VT and NH (demonstrations, twilight meetings, webinars, etc.) and learn about total crop management tactics (IPM, soil testing, disease control, soil management, etc.). Attendee feedback will be collected via online evaluations. April 2022-December 2024. All project team members will work with growers, M. Skinner and B. Sideman will compile impact results.
Milestone 7. Online and onsite demonstration events. Educational events will be held throughout the project using different formats (online as well as onsite). This ensures we reach a wide audience over a large geographical area with the online sessions, but also have face-to-face sessions, which encourage farmer-to farmer exchange. We anticipate reaching at least 100 growers through these events, at least 20% of them new growers. Attendees will be asked to complete a survey after each event which will include questions about the usefulness of the sessions and grower adoption of the BPs introduced. We hope for a return rate of 10%.
M7 Progress: A webinar series is planned for Spring 2023 specific to new growers. The program is currently being developed. Segments for new growers have also been incorporated into the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Growers Assn. (VVBA) annual webinar series for the 2023 growing season. A database of new growers in VT and NH was established to recruit others to take part in project activities. We will invite growers through out listserv networks reaching over 3500 growers.
- Learning: 100 new high-tunnel vegetable growers take part in at least one of our sessions for new growers at our regional high-tunnel conferences and 30 indicate in surveys that they implemented or intend to implement three recommended BPs in their high tunnels. Post conference surveys will track adoption. M. Skinner and B. Sideman will compile impact results. Dec. 2022 and Dec. 2024.
Milestone 8. Conference sessions for new high-tunnel growers. Presentations at the regional High-Tunnel Conferences in Year 1 and 3 of our project will be tailored to the needs of new growers. Surveys of all conference attendees will be conducted to gather further information on grower issues in high tunnel vegetable production. We will ask how long growers have been growing vegetables in their high tunnels to gain insights on the value of our sessions to meet their specific needs. The survey of attendees to the Year 1 conference will serve as baseline data on the level of experience and adoption of BPs. The survey of conference attendees in Year 3 will provide evidence of the change in grower adoption. We anticipate attendance of at least 100/conference, and a survey return rate of 20% (at least 40 responses).
M8 Progress: The New England High Tunnel Conference was moved to Dec. 2024 to keep pace with alternating with the New England Vegetable and Fruit Conference (NEVFC). Sessions for new growers are planned for that event.
- Learning: 1,000 growers learn about habitat plants, pest/disease management and crop nutrition recommendations and other BPs through printed handouts or the web-based High-Tunnel Toolkit produced by project personnel. Grower surveys will document adoption. April 2022-December 2024. All project team members will work on the resources, C.F. Sullivan will track website hits.
Milestone 9. High-Tunnel Toolkit and website. To compile our issue-based resources into a High-Tunnel Toolkit, input from new and experienced growers will be sought in Year 1 through a survey. In addition to the surveys, data will be maintained on the number of hits on the UVM High Tunnel website. The extent to which growers refer to the online Toolkit will indicate the value of that resource to the user group. The survey will be repeated in Year 3. This will demonstrate the measurable benefits of the online Toolkit.
M9 Progress: A webpage has been developed for this project (https://www.uvm.edu/~htunnel/). We are currently creating content (i.e., factsheets, related links, etc.). Webinar sessions will be added as they become available. We have conduced an extensive resource search on the web and compiled a database of resources suitable for new growers. We will link to these as we screen their content.
- Learning/Evaluation: 100 new growers adopt at least one new practice learned through this project and report it helped them meet their annual economic and crop production goals. Grower surveys April 2022 and November 2024. Completion: December 2024. All project team members will work with growers, M. Skinner, B. Sideman and B. Maden will compile impact results.
Milestone 10. Improved crop production. In all surveys we conduct, growers will be asked if participating in our educational programs resulted in an increase in crop revenues, yield and quality as a result of adopting one or more of the BPs introduced in our educational programs. Results from the surveys will demonstrate enhanced crop production.
M10 Progress: This is ongoing and is too early in project to assess.
Milestone Activities and Participation Summary
Created database of growers.
Compiled high tunnel resource list/database.
New grower recruitment flyer and dissemination across NH and VT.
Advisory meeting held and summarized to discuss direction of educational activities.
Performance Target Outcomes
Each will adopt three recommended best practices (BP) to manage their high-tunnel crops. Its too early to assess change in year 1.
~200,000 sq. ft
75% will meet their annual economic and crop production goals
Too early in the project to assess changes.
Too early in the project to assess changes.
Too early in the project to assess changes.
Additional Project Outcomes
- High Tunnel Production Toolkit (Website)