Improving farmer options for sustainable and profitable direct-market tomato production and high tunnel management in the Upper Midwest

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2017: $199,915.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2021
Grant Recipient: University of Wisconsin-Madison
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Julie Dawson
University of Wisconsin-Madison


  • Vegetables: tomatoes


  • Crop Production: crop improvement and selection, high tunnels or hoop houses, plant breeding and genetics, season extension
  • Education and Training: on-farm/ranch research, participatory research
  • Pest Management: genetic resistance
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems, public participation

    Proposal abstract:

    Tomatoes are a key crop for organic and diversified fresh market vegetable growers in the North Central Region (NCR). Growers face challenges with field tomato production, due to short seasons, increasingly erratic weather producing larger rainfall events, and high disease pressure. Many growers have begun using high tunnels as a partial solution to these problems, because this too offers some protection from high rainfall events and foliar disease while extending the growing season. However, high tunnels come with challenges of their own, particularly stationary high tunnels that reduce growers' rotational options. Mobile high tunnels allow for rotation and soil building practices, but are more expensive than high tunnels. Caterpillar tunnels may provide some of the same benefits as mobile high tunnels with a much lower cost but this has not been tested in the NCR.

    In addition, tomato varieties developed specifically for field and the high tunnel production would benefit growers in the NCR. This includes varieties bred for organic field environments, with better combinations of flavor, disease resistance, durability and resistance to cracking than current options, and varieties developed specifically for high tunnel production, with more concentrated fruit set and shorter production seasons, to allow for rotation to a cover or winter crop without sacrificing flavor, quality or overall yield. This project has three objectives designed to address the challenge of producing high quality tomatoes organically for local markets in the NCR: 1) comparing production, disease mitigation and cost in high tunnels, caterpillar tunnels and field production, so growers can base management decisions on reliable information about the benefits and drawbacks of each system, 2) selecting early tomato varieties for high tunnels, with improved flavor and more concentrated fruit set to give growers more rotational options, and 3) selecting tomato varieties that are more robust for the field, with improved disease resistance and flavor. These build on our current work and respond to grower needs.

    In our current work and for this project, we rely on participatory research with growers, including on-farm trials managed by growers and on-station trials advised by growers. This project involves farmers in both the management trials and in variety selection. Outcomes from this research will include information on the relative costs and benefits of different management systems, advanced tomato breeding populations developed for organic field and high tunnel production, and a stronger network of participatory research and farmer-focused cultivar development in the NCR.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    This project will develop new breeding populations of tomatoes with excellent quality and adaptation to organic diversified vegetable farming in the upper Midwest.  We will provide recommendations on the use of lower-cost mobile alternatives to high tunnels. We will develop better variety options for high tunnel production and for field production, with traits specific to those systems. We will strengthen our current on-farm trial network to continue to support peer-to-peer information sharing among growers. This will help farmers meet market demand for high quality local produce.

    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.