In fall, 2016, we initiated the evaluation of leafy greens for the SARE farm-to-institution partnership grant. The WVU Kearneysville Research Farm high tunnel structure was rebuilt from winter snow damage during the summer by Dr. Jett and the Farm Crew at the Station. By mid-September the structure was ready to plant with lettuce and spinach cultivars. We began the evaluation of lettuces for fall production followed by a sequential planting of late fall lettuce for deep winter (mid-January) evaluation. The two farmer collaborators (David Elliott and Elwood Williams) planted 25 cultivars of lettuce and 12 varieties of spinach. Dr. Jett initiated discussions with the VA Medical Center in Martinsburg, WV. Procurement processing was performed with each of the collaborators. Postharvest handling and food safety protocols were established.
Beginning in mid-November, lettuce was harvested and transported to the VA facility. Yield and quality of each cultivar was evaluated. In addition, planting arrangement for head lettuce is being evaluated. In mid-October and December, two field days were conducted at the WVU Kearneysville Farm. Attendance was approximately 30 (14 growers of bibbs; 16 growers of romaine) which included the two cooperating growers. Dr. Jett and the collaborators discussed the goals of the project with attendees. Each variety was discussed along with attributes or weaknesses. High tunnel four season leafy green production was discussed and demonstrations on how lettuce is harvested and washed for market. The potential advantages of selling to institutions such as hospitals was discussed.
The objective of this project are: 1) identify superior cultivars (varieties) of head lettuce and spinach for the fall/winter season; 2) Evaluate sequential planting of lettuce and spinach within the high tunnel during the fall/winter season; 3) establish a relationship with the culinary and nutrition staff at he VA Hospital; 4) train 2 cooperating growers on winter leafy green production and postharvest handling for institution markets.
In 2016-17, 45 head lettuce cultivars were evaluated for yield, quality and stress tolerance. The lettuces were evaluated in 3 separate cropping cycles over a 9 month period and included Batavian, Bibb and Romaine lettuce types. Lettuce was evaluated in both conventional and organic high tunnel production systems. Low tunnel lettuce production was initiated in one location during fall, 2017. Sixteen spinach varieties were evaluated in fall/winter and spring production cycles within 3 high tunnels. Spinach was evaluated for yield, stress tolerance and pre and postharvest quality.
Based on 2017 trials with leafy greens at three locations in the Eastern Panhandle region, 7 versatile, stress tolerant head lettuce cultivars for year-round production have been identified. ‘Nevada’, ‘Green Forest’, ‘Salvius’, ‘Magenta’, ‘Tropicana’, ‘Red Cross’ and ‘Cherokee’ produced high marketable yields and postharvest quality in both high and low temperature microenvironments. Heat tolerant cultivars did not develop tip burn or bolt when exposed to high temperatures and long photoperiods. Cold tolerant cultivars matured in progressively colder temperature and shorter day length. In addition these cultivars did not develop tip burn in cold weather.
Five spinach cultivars were identified with cold and heat tolerance. Heat tolerant spinach will not bolt when exposed to increasing photoperiod. The warm season adapted cultivars will enable growers to harvest and market spinach through June.
Sequential planting is critical for an even supply of leafy greens. Based on research, we recommend staggered plantings every 14 days for both lettuce and spinach production within a high tunnel.
Cooperators as well as other local leafy greens producers have begun to adopt these cultivars and growing systems for their markets. In addition, the institutional buyers have expanded their product list including warm season vegetables. We hypothesized that leafy greens would lead to developing an expanded relationship with the buyers resulting in more specialty crop product sales over time.
Research with 2 cooperating growers and a marketing partnership with the VA Hospital and the West Virginia Farm-to-School Program have identified recommended high tunnel lettuce and spinach cultivars that will maximize yield and quality per unit time per unit area for high tunnel leafy green growers. West Virginia has over 500 high tunnels with the vast majority of these structures being used for one or two crops. Leafy greens are a viable year-round cash crop which can be sold through regional wholesale markets. The results of this project have been presented and discussed with other regional high tunnel producers and horticulturists from across the U.S. Immediately, we have a cohort of producers in the Eastern Panhandle region with the capacity to sell to institutional markets. The buyers are very pleased with the postharvest quality. This SARE Partnership project will serve as a case study for other regions of the state.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
In 2017, two on-farm field days were conducted. Leafy green production, pest management, postharvest handling and marketing were discussed with attendees. Data from the research trials was presented at 2 multi-state meetings with over 100 attendees. Two fact sheets were created in 2017 which included the “Season Extension Lettuce Guide” and “High Tunnel Spinach Production”. At the 2017 American Society for Horticultural Science Annual Meeting, this project has provided supporting data for a much larger Specialty Crop Initiative Project attempting to develop a more local leafy green production system.
variety selection, pest management, harvesting, postharvest handling
The two cooperating farmers involved in this Partnership Grant have been acquiring skills related to extended season leafy greens production. The growers have become aware of what makes a high quality lettuce or loose-leaf green such as spinach. Planting dates for uninterrupted production have been adopted. Grower-cooperators have become more knowledgeable on essential Best Management Practices such as variety selection, fertilization, irrigation, pest management, harvesting, food safety and postharvest handling. We have other groups of high tunnel producers in West Virginia who will use the important output from this project.