Evaluation of hardy fig varieties in a northern New England high tunnel

Project Overview

FNE14-797
Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2014: $14,992.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2017
Region: Northeast
State: Maine
Project Leader:
Bill Errickson
Singing Nettle Farm

Annual Reports

Commodities

  • Fruits: figs, general tree fruits

Practices

  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, budgets/cost and returns
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture

    Proposal summary:

    As pest, disease, and moisture issues increasingly plague the traditional fruits of the Northeast, farmers must begin to consider alternative approaches for fruit production, including the incorporation of additional species into our agricultural systems. Figs, unique fruits exceptionally high in calcium, are produced on self-fertile trees with minimal pest and disease issues. They can be enjoyed fresh, and also dry well for winter storage, having the potential to provide income for the farmer and local fruit for consumers beyond the window of harvest.  Expanding the use of high tunnel structures to include perennial crops such as figs opens a new window of sustainable agriculture opportunity in the Northeast while decreasing the region’s dependency on fossil fuels for the production and import of fruit. The major challenges of producing a fig crop in the Northeast lie in the success of overwintering the plants and ripening the fruit.

    We propose to trial four of the hardiest fig varieties available in a 26′ x 48′ high tunnel in mid-coast Maine (USDA Zone 5b). Trees will be watered with drip irrigation and mulched with landscape fabric to conserve water and increase soil temperatures. Half of the trees will be wrapped with row cover for the winter. We will evaluate each variety, wrapped and unwrapped trees, based on yield, harvest dates, winter survival, taste, plant height, fruit size, flowering dates, and Brix levels with the goal of providing variety and winter care recommendations to growers in our region. A crop budget will determine the economic viability of figs as a northeastern crop. This study will span three growing seasons, allowing one year for plant establishment, two years of overwintering data, and at least two years of yield data.

    As climate conditions increasingly challenge fruit producers growing traditional species in the Northeast, growers are frequently forced to rely on chemical pesticide applications to produce marketable fruit. This research will explore the potential for low-input fig (Ficus carica) fruit production as an alternative crop on a diversified organic farm. The results of this study will

    1) compare the survivability and productivity of four of the hardiest available fig varieties in a northern New England high tunnel (Zone 5b),
    2) determine the usefulness of providing additional winter protection by wrapping fig trees with row cover, and
    3) assess the economic viability of figs as a northern New England fruit crop. To make these determinations, winter hardiness, bloom time, harvest dates, plant height, total, marketable, and unripe fruit yield, Brix levels, and taste will be measured; a complete crop budget will be created to account for financial expenses, labor inputs, and profit from fruit sales (actual as well as projected). The results and recommendations on which northeastern growers may base a plan for their own operations will be presented through on-farm field visits, public presentations, and print in two relevant publications.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    In the Northeast, where farmers consistently struggle with climatic challenges presented by a short growing season, cool temperatures, and harsh, unpredictable winters, it behooves agricultural producers to increase the diversity of their enterprises, building sustainable farms that provide their livelihood and comprise the local food system. When considering a farm system’s resilience and the security of a local or regional food system, fruit production is an area of particular interest. There is currently a high demand for local fruits in the Northeast, though the production of many traditional species presents ecologic and financial challenges. Apples and plums, for example, frequently suffer from insect and disease pressure and are subject to crop failure when pollination is disrupted due to cold spring temperatures and rain during bloom times. The pesticides necessary to produce a marketable fruit crop pose both environmental risks and a health danger to farmers and consumers.

    Figs are currently shipped great distances to consumers in Maine; however, they have the potential to be produced in this region if given adequate microclimate conditions. Though annual crops such as tomatoes and overwintered greens, with occasional specialty crops such as ginger, are currently produced in high tunnel growing spaces, perennial crops offer the prospect of reduced soil disturbance and therefore less nutrient, moisture, and organic matter loss during production.

    The objective of this research is to identify one or more varieties of fig tree that can be successfully grown to produce marketable fruit in USDA Zone 5b with the protection of a high tunnel. In addition to showing varietal differences, the results will demonstrate how variation in winter protection practices influences fruit production and survivability. Bill and Lauren Errickson, as the principal investigators of this study and co-operators of Singing Nettle Farm, will conduct the research steps detailed here.

    In the spring of 2014, four varieties of the hardiest available fig trees (Ronde de Bordeaux, Gino’s Black, Sal’s El, and Marseilles Black VS) will be planted in a 26×48 foot high tunnel in mid-coast Maine, Zone 5b. Eight trees of each variety (a total of 32 trees) will be planted on five foot centers into soil that has been amended for optimum fig tree nutrition with a mineral blend formulation based on a soil test taken prior to planting. Soil health may influence plant hardiness; thus, amending the soil to a maximum baseline nutrition level for all trees prior to planting will reduce the potential for variability due to soil health. All trees will be mulched with landscape fabric and drip tape will be laid in place at the time of planting. Trees will be watered via the drip irrigation at regular intervals throughout each growing season.

    In the fall of 2014 and 2015, four trees (half) of each variety will be wrapped with row cover for the winter to assess whether there is a benefit to providing extra protection from freezing temperatures. The four varieties of figs will be evaluated using the following parameters: flowering dates, harvest dates, total yield of fruits, yield of marketable fruits, yield of unripe fruits, fruit size (average weight per fruit), winter survival rate, peak plant height, Brix levels, taste, and economics. The effects of wrapping trees in the winter will be quantified by evaluating wrapped vs. un-wrapped trees on the basis of the above parameters. Flowering dates will be quantified by recording the date of the first open flower and the date of the last flower to drop petals for each variety on both wrapped and unwrapped trees. Trees will be monitored daily during their potential bloom period to ensure accurate data collection. This will delineate a window of bloom time for each variety.

    Harvest dates will be recorded as the date of harvest of the first and last ripe fruit of the season for each variety, wrapped and unwrapped, providing a window of harvest. Dates of each harvest and the yield on that date will also be recorded to determine the time of peak harvest for each variety. Total yield of fruits and yield of marketable fruits will be calculated by weighing the fruits of each harvest throughout the season, for each variety, wrapped and unwrapped. Unmarketable fruits will be weighed separately and included in the total yield, but not in the marketable yield, and will not be counted as income in the crop budget.

    At the end of the growing season, unripe fruits will be collected from each tree in a single harvest, weighed, and averaged for each variety, wrapped and unwrapped trees. Average fruit size will be calculated by counting the number of fruits in each harvest and dividing the total weight by the number of fruits for each variety, wrapped and unwrapped trees. Winter survival rate will be determined first by total tree mortality or survival for each variety, wrapped and unwrapped. Second, for surviving trees, overwintering success will be determined by measuring both the length of vegetative die-back and living wood on each tree to calculate a percentage of winter die-back, which will be averaged for each variety, wrapped and unwrapped trees. Dead wood will be pruned each spring, along with any living branches that might restrict the flow of air and sunlight. Peak plant height will be measured in September, after all vegetative growth for the season has culminated.

    Measurements will be taken from each tree, with average values calculated for each variety, wrapped and unwrapped. Brix levels will be measured using a refractometer; sap from three fruits at peak ripeness will be measured from each tree. Average Brix readings will then be calculated for each variety, wrapped and unwrapped trees. Taste will be evaluated by conducting an on-farm, blind taste test of each variety from wrapped and unwrapped trees. Participants, to be recruited from the community and/or CSA, will each receive a comment card to numerically score each sample according to defined taste parameters, including sweetness, aroma, and texture. Participants will be asked to evaluate each parameter on a scale of 1 to 5, and to provide additional written comments for each variety. An economic analysis will be performed by creating a crop budget for each variety, wrapped and unwrapped trees. Labor, infrastructure, amendments, and the cost of trees will be included as expenses; potential sales of marketable fruit (based on the amount of marketable fruit measured and the average price per pound at which figs grown in this study are actually sold) will be included as income. Though we will record data, we expect that 2014 will essentially serve as an establishment year for the trees. Data gathered in 2015 and 2016 will provide a more accurate estimate for marketable fruit sales potential.

    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.