Improving High Tunnel Management with Soil Steamers through an Equipment Sharing Model

Progress report for ONE20-370

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2020: $29,997.00
Projected End Date: 11/30/2023
Grant Recipient: Cheshire County Conservation District
Region: Northeast
State: New Hampshire
Project Leader:
Amanda Littleton
Cheshire County Conservation District
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Project Information

Summary:

Fruit and vegetable growers are dependent on the use of high tunnels to produce high value crops.  There has been a strong increase in the number of tunnels in NH for vegetable and fruit production since 2010, when the USDA NRCS first offered high tunnels as a practice through EQIP.  These tunnels provide a necessary protection from extreme weather events.  Though vital for farm viability, high tunnels also create environments that are ideal for disease development and persistent pest and weed problems.   

Organic producers, and those farms who use limited inputs, have restricted tools to manage these challenges.   Soil steaming is an emerging technology that is being utilized to manage disease, weeds, and pests in high tunnels.  There is also an application for steam in sanitizing greenhouse goods and distribution containers, a solution to a perennial challenge for growers.   Although this is a proven technology, it is not yet widely adopted in the Northeast.  A problem is that soil steamers are expensive and unattainable for small and medium scale producers, who make up the bulk of fruit and vegetable producers in NH.  We are proposing to make a soil steamer available to specialty crop producers through an equipment sharing model.  This model will allow producers to access the equipment in an affordable manner.  The Conservation District will be the third-party manager of this equipment sharing model and will work with farmers to provide trainings, on-farm demos, and facilitate peer to peer education on the best practices of soil steaming.

 

Project Objectives:

This project seeks to improve high tunnel management by making soil steaming equipment available to farmers through an equipment sharing model, and providing education and trainings to farmers through workshops, on-farm demonstrations, and one-on-one technical assistance.  

 

The benefits to farmers include increased access to affordable equipment for managing weeds and disease in high tunnels.  This equipment also has the capacity to be used to combat viruses and bacteria through steam sterilization in sanitizing greenhouse goods (e.g. trays, pots) and distribution containers.  This benefits farms by improving their sanitation and food safety practices.  Overall the participation in this project will benefit farms by improving their productivity, reducing their labor costs, and lead to an increase in farm income. 

Introduction:

Fruit and vegetable growers are often dependent on the use of high tunnels to produce high value crops.  There has been a strong increase in the number of tunnels in NH for vegetable and fruit production since 2010 when the USDA NRCS first offered high tunnels through EQIP.  These tunnels provide a necessary protection from extreme weather events which are on the rise as a result of climate change.  Though vital for farm viability, high tunnels also create environments that are ideal for disease development and persistent pest and weed problems.   

Organic producers, and those farms who use limited inputs, have restricted tools to manage these challenges.   Soil steaming is an emerging technology in New England that is being utilized to manage disease, weeds, and pests in high tunnels by both organic and conventional fruit and vegetable producers.  Farms are particularly interested in a new method to control Chickweed and Sclerotinia.   There is also an application for steam in sanitizing greenhouse goods and distribution containers, a solution to a perennial challenge for growers.   Although this is a proven technology, it is not yet widely adopted in the Northeast.  A problem is that soil steamers are expensive and unattainable for small and medium scale producers.   These sized farms make up the bulk of fruit and vegetable producers in NH.  We are proposing to make a soil steamer available to specialty crop producers through an equipment sharing model.  This model will allow producers to access the equipment in an affordable manner.  The Cheshire County Conservation District will be the third-party manager of this equipment sharing and will work with farmers to provide trainings, on-farm demos, and facilitate peer to peer education on the best practices of soil steaming for disease prevention, weed control, and equipment sterilization. 

There is a demonstrated farmer need for this work.  In development of this project we have received confirmation from local farmers and service providers that it will answer a need for a new management tool for successful high tunnel growing.  Farmers have been clear that they prefer a tool sharing system with a third-party manager and that without this equipment sharing model soil steamers are otherwise unattainable for their scale of their production. 

This project will improve the sustainability of farming in NH through improved farm productivity.  It will reduce farm labor costs of weed management, and it will offer a new tool for disease control and equipment sterilization. In the long-term soil steaming costs less than using chemicals and is safer for workers and the environment.   Equipment sterilization through steam, to combat viruses and bacteria, is becoming increasingly important for improving sanitation and allowing for the reuse of these materials.  All of these benefits combined will lead to an increase in farm income. 

 

Cooperators

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  • Jeremy Delisle - Technical Advisor (Educator)
  • Andrew Pressman - Technical Advisor (Educator)
  • Bruce Wooster - Producer

Research

Materials and methods:

This project focuses efforts on offering an equipment sharing program, education, demonstrations and trainings on a soil steaming technology for high tunnel management.  The following is a description of executed activities:

  • Reviewed research and gathered input from experienced farmers and researchers
    • Reached out to farmers who are currently utilizing the technology to seek advice on equipment selection and farm trainings and educational events.
  • Secured a long-term rental of the soil steaming equipment for three years.
    • We have secured a rental agreement with a NH dealer of the Sioux Soil Steamer. They have offered to donate the equipment to the Conservation District at the end of the three year rental.  This will allow the equipment program that we establish to continue beyond the grant period for the life of the equipment. 
  • Worked with host farm on the first equipment trial
    • Picadilly Farm is the host farm for the soil steaming rental equipment. Bruce Wooster, Farm Owner and Manager has committed himself to becoming expert on the use and maintenance of this equipment.  During Fall 2020 Wooster has worked with the equipment on a greenhouse trial and he has also done the annual maintenance and winter storage of the equipment.   
  • On-farm trainings and demonstrations
    • The first of three on farm trainings was completed.  We worked with Picadilly Farm of Winchester NH on the trial.  Technical advisors on site to learn more and continue to offer further education and advice on how farms can be most successful with this new technology were Andrew Pressman of NCAT, Jeremy Delisle of UNHCE, and Carl Majewski of UNHCE.  
    • PI has also been in communication with UVM Extension staff to discuss potential for collaboration on the soil steaming demonstrations they have planned for future years.  
Participation Summary
1 Farmer participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

2 Consultations
1 On-farm demonstrations
2 Published press articles, newsletters
1 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

2 Farmers
5 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

CCCD places a priority on providing public outreach and education to the community focusing on environmental concerns in a manner that encourages appreciation and stewardship of natural assets for the benefit of future generations.  CCCD has established strong relationships with the people who work the land and those community members who care about its stewardship.  Our outreach efforts for this project are focused on three audiences: 1. Farmers, our primary audience, to provide information on education and training opportunities and to share information on the new equipment resource available for high tunnel management, 2.  Agricultural Service Providers, to offer professional development opportunities and provide templates and instruction to adopt the equipment sharing model outlined in this proposal, and  3. General Public to increase their awareness and appreciation of innovations happening in agriculture. 

CCCD has utilized email marketing campaigns, social media, and traditional press releases to local, state, and national media outlets, to provide notification of the educational and technical assistance opportunities as well as the equipment availability.   This was done for the Fall 2020 on farm demonstration.  The press release was picked up by various media outlets.   The publicity and promotion of this program has been spearheaded by the CCCD but the reach has been leveraged through partnerships with the following NH non-profits, institutions of higher education, and governments: NCAT, UNHCE, NH Association of Conservation Districts, Monadnock Farm and Community Coalition, NH Department of Agriculture, NH Farm Bureau, NH Food Alliance, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Small & Beginner Farmers of NH, and our regional network of municipal agricultural commissions.   

 

 

Learning Outcomes

2 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation

Project Outcomes

1 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
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.