Season Extension and Cultivar Evaluations for Increasing Farmer Profitability Using High Tunnels in the Baltimore/Washington Metropolitan Marketing Area
The project was designed to collect data on the progress that farmers make as they improve their skills for increasing farm profitability through the use of an unheated high tunnel to extend the harvest season. Each farm in this project is a small-scale vegetable farm that does direct retail marketing over a long growing season. This project is designed to provide a way for the accomplished farmer-cooperators to communicate among themselves for exchange of information. And most importantly, it provides the research team with data and information to pass on to Maryland Cooperative Extension Service for outreach to interested farmers, consumers and scientists throughout the Mid Atlantic region.
Each of the five farmer-cooperators came into this project with prior experience at growing crops in high tunnels for one or more seasons. At each farm, there was a personal investment to purchase the parts for building an unheated high tunnel. (No grant funds were used to purchase hardware for the tunnels.) During 2005, the farmers had their first full year of growing crops in their newly-constructed high tunnels.
The entire group (the farmers and the research team) met for a full day on January 13, 2005 to make decisions and to prepare for the coming year.
Using grant funds, the project coordinator hired Amada Dell as a part time research technician. She is a student at The University of Maryland. Amanda traveled from farm to farm throughout the main part of the summer growing season. She collected data, worked side-by-side with the farmers, collected photo documentation for reporting purposes, and distributed weekly reports among the farmers and the research team. She has done an excellent job. Her access to campus facilities proved to be an unanticipated positive factor in accomplishing work during the growing season.
Our goal is to gather and distribute information within the farming community in an effort to reach out to at least 600 farmers over the course of the project, with a goal of helping 40 farmers to add high tunnels to their farming operations as a way to increase profitability and sustainability for their ongoing marketing.
Our goal is to do a good job at on-farm research and to share information in a way that is beneficial to the farmer participants so that they can serve as farmer-mentors for others who will adapt the practices. To achieve that goal, a meeting was held on November 11, 2005 with all farmers and members of the research team in attendance. Good progress was made at that meeting.
As a result of discussions on November 11, the research team decided that it would be in our interest to develop a working agreement with standardized activities that each farmer must agree to. The agreement will not be binding, but it will form a basis of understanding about the goals of the project. It will also help the new project coordinator to determine how to initiate payment for labor to each of the farmers.
A second planning meeting will be held on January 12, 2006 to prepare for the coming growing season.
On January 14, 2006, Bryan Butler and Amanda Dell will present a talk about the 2005 observations of the high tunnel project at the Farming for Profit and Stewardship” Conference sponsored by our regional sustainable agriculture organization, Future Harvest Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture.
Field Days will be held at each farm in 2006.
Mark Davis and Bryan Butler worked with each farmer to help with construction during the fall and winter of 2004 – 05. Tunnel construction continued throughout the winter months of 2005. (If all had gone according to plan, construction would have been completed at each location in October, 2004.) In many cases, the construction projects were delayed as a result of uncooperative weather and by the normal demands of late season activities on vegetable farms. By late March, each tunnel was up and covered with plastic. Bryan and Mark made regular visits to each farm to be sure that installation of the side curtains was correct and that there would be access to good air flow when needed.
Soil preparation inside the tunnels varied from location to location. At the Gurley Farm and at the Hood Farm, the tunnels were constructed on well-drained, rich soil that had been used for vegetable production in the past. The soil had already been amended and was “ready to go.” At the Kearney Farm and at the Howard Farm, the tunnels were constructed on the edges of larger scale fields. The soil had not been amended for use as an intensive vegetable production area. At the Ecosystem Farm, the tunnel was constructed on a poor piece of land with drainage issues. The plot had not been used for vegetable production for many years. It was covered with a sparse sod. The sod was plowed down prior to beginning of tunnel construction, which caused great difficulties when the soil turned into a quagmire during the exceptionally wet fall and winter of 2004 and 2005.
Because high tunnels are to be used for the production of high-value, early season, intensively cultivated crops, it is crucial that the crops be located on excellent soil that has been amended and which drains well. The tunnel should be located where there is air movement, but not excessive wind. The investment in the tunnel requires that the soil be in an improved condition. Once the tunnel has been constructed (and a substantial investment of time and cash has been made), it is not a good time to begin working on soil improvements.
We learned that the raising and lowering of the side curtains on the tunnels is a subject that needs careful attention, especially in the early months. We found that there was too much concern early in the season about heat build up. The major concern early in the season is to be sure that there is a short period of ventilation early in the morning to reduce humidity and to reduce the potential for disease problems. But then, side curtains need to be lowered, even on sunny days. It is important to take advantage of heat accumulation to promote maximum growth of the tomato crop. Later in the season, as the sun moves higher in the sky (by late April or early May), it will become necessary to vent excessive heat.
At the outset of the project, it was decided that the main data collection would be focused on a standardized crop of tomatoes that would be planted at least 4 weeks prior to the normal planting date for tomatoes at each specific location. It was decided that there would be 2 rows, each 48’ long of the variety ‘Red Sun’ and 1 row of the variety ‘Cherokee Purple’. The plants were produced by a Maryland-certified organic commercial grower. Each farmer was to take a soil test and then add nutrients according to their own plans. Trickle irrigation was installed, and the beds were covered with red plastic. Each farmer was instructed to stake tomatoes according to their own plans.
Concurrent work was conducted by Mark Davis and others at the high tunnel project at the USDA’s Beltsville Agricultural Research Center. In that project, data is being gathered on the performance of different tomato cultivars to learn more about the response of tomato plants, especially during the early part of the growing season. Observations from the Beltsville tunnels were shared with the farmers in this SARE project. Some of the observations made in the Beltsville tunnels will help us in decision-making for the 2006 growing season, as we select tomato cultivars.
At each farm, data was collected on both marketable and non-marketable fruits. A standardized method for collecting and weighing tomatoes was set up. Amanda Dell collected the data on a weekly basis. We found that there were vast differences on how the farmers decided to handle the picking of vine-ripe fruit. Some farmers were on a schedule to pick fruit on a daily basis as the tomatoes turned from the breaker stage to the red stage. Others picked only fully-ripened tomatoes prior to market day. As a result, the numbers of non-marketable tomatoes varied greatly from farm to farm. This issue will be discussed at length at the next organizing meeting.
In 2006, farmers will continue to harvest according to their own plans. The research team will analyze the 2005 results and summarize this year’s data. Our goal is to encourage each of the farmers to make their own decisions on the methods for cultivating and harvesting the crop, and to network with one another. It is hoped that each farmer will learn from the others and develop a profitable system that fits in with the specific needs of their individual farm.
Shortly after fruit began to ripen, we noticed troublesome disease symptoms. With cooperation from Jim Hanson and the Plant Disease Clinic at University of Maryland, we learned that all of the tomatoes were suffering from tomato spotted wilt virus (TSWV), which is carried by thrips. Mark Davis and Amanda Dell delivered leaf and fruit samples to the lab on a regular basis over a period of three weeks. We compiled data on the disease and shared it with the farmers through Amanda’s weekly reports.
Because the Plant Disease Lab isolated TSWV from plants at each farm, it is likely that the thrips originated at the greenhouse of the supplier of the bedding plants. Even though the virus was detected at each farm, there were huge differences in the way that the disease affected plant health and fruit yields. The disease appeared to have a much greater impact on yields at the locations where nutrients were a limiting factor.
Although the lab personnel recommended that all tomato plants be destroyed immediately, most of the farmers chose to not destroy the tomato crop in their tunnel. When we used sticky yellow traps, we did not find thrips. The threat for spreading of thrips from the high tunnel to nearby field corps seemed to be low. Based on the lab data and the observations in the tunnels, Mark Davis will make recommendations to the greenhouse grower prior to placing the order for bedding plants in January, 2006.
In 2005, yields varied greatly from farm to farm:
The best yielding crops were found at the Hood Farm and at the Gurley Farm. At both locations, the high tunnel tomatoes continued to produce excellent yields throughout the growing season. Both farmers were able to harvest and market high tunnel tomatoes at the same time that they were harvesting and marketing field-grown tomatoes.
The Kearney Farm had a total crop failure early in the season for a variety of reasons including herbicide drift coming from a neighboring farm. It was their decision to not replant tomatoes into their tunnel.
The Howard Farm got very low yields for a number of reasons. Their soil was nutrient deficient. The TSWV was quite severe. They had a severe infestation of hornworms.
The Ecosystem Farm had an excellent initial harvest. But then the plants began to show severe nutrient deficiencies. As the first fruits ripened, all the upper flowers aborted, perhaps as a result of the TSMV. It was decided to take the advice of the Plant Disease Lab and destroy the crop after 5 weeks of harvest.
At each location, the farmers made decisions on what to plant in the beds that were not used for growing tomatoes. There were some notable successes. Early in the season, green beans were planted at the Hood Farm. Harvests continued for weeks and weeks, and the crop proved to be very profitable. At the Gurley Farm, there were a series of greens grown late in the fall. At the Ecosystem Farm, there was a very successful succession crop of spinach and fall greens that were planted after the tomatoes were removed and there were abundant successive harvests of greens until the end of the CSA season at Thanksgiving.
Conducting on-farm research is always a challenge. In some on-farm research projects, researchers merely put plots on a commercial farm. However, our goals are to be more inclusive by encouraging a high degree of farmer involvement. It is our goal to document successes and failures – as measured by profitability. This experiment is meant to be an observation of farming practices that contribute to profitability.
We have been very pleased that we were given the opportunity to hire a research technician to go from farm to farm. Amanda Dell has excellent people skills and a good work ethic. She has done a wonderful job of transferring information.
This is not to say that there were no problems during the 2005 growing season. There were times when Amanda’s role was not always understood. In mid-season, it was necessary to reiterate the goals of the project to be sure that each farmer recognized the paradigm that they were working with. In this project, the tomatoes belong to the farmers – and not to the researchers. There was some confusion about this fact. Perhaps the confusion arose because the research team contracted with the grower, set specifications and then delivered the plants to each farm as a way to promote standardization and to reduce inconvenience to busy farmers.
In addition, it was necessary to re-state the reasons for providing some salary money (up to $1000 per farm) to offset any losses of time (and potential income) that the farmer would incur as a result of participating in this project.
We also needed to reiterate that it is the responsibly of the research team to document the practices used at each farm and then to share the information. Of course, the first recipients of information are the farmers who learn from one another. And then information will be distributed through other venues (see next section.)
We learned that the normal stresses and problems of farming seemed to be magnified as we collected data and tried to make comparisons. As any farmer or researcher knows, there is no such thing as a “normal” growing season. For example, in 2005, all the farms faced problems because the spring was abnormally cool. There was excess water during the late winter, at a time when some of the tunnels were not yet covered. There was the TSWV disease problem and hornworms. And then there were human problems to deal with! There were farmer injuries, a new baby, major changes in a farming operation, off-site job changes, etc, etc. All of these factors played a huge role in the outcomes, as happens at any farm, or at any research station.
At the outset of the project, it was unclear how we would compare data collected at each farm. It became obvious mid-way through this first growing season that there was no way to make direct comparisons or to conduct statistical analyses. Instead, each farm is being observed as an individual case study. It is the goal of the research team to document examples of successes and to make sure that the reasons for success are well documented. It is also our goal to point out potential problems and find ways to avoid the problems in the future. This information will be presented through a variety of outlets as an encouragement for other farmers to invest in a high tunnel as a way to increase overall farm profits.
It needs to be stated that the results at both the Kearney Farm and the Howard Farm did not produce sufficient return on investment in 2005. Both of these farms will remain in the project in 2006. The project coordinators will give these two farms more attention throughout 2006 in an effort to grow, harvest and market a successful crop of tomatoes.
During the year, there were unanticipated problems at the Ecosystem Farm, which is operated by The Accokeek Foundation, a non-profit organization. As the season progressed, it became obvious that it just didn’t work to conduct this type of on-farm research (i.e., research that is aimed at improving profitability) on a demonstration and research farm. There were problems that occurred as the result of multiple layers of decision-making. It must be said that there were good farming efforts expended by some of the farm staff throughout the growing season and during the construction phases. Even so, it became obvious that a case study at this farm is completely different from what would be found at a family operated for-profit farm. By the end of the season, it was decided that the Ecosystem Farm would not participate as a farmer-cooperator in this SARE project.
Charles Kauffman will no longer be project coordinator as of December 31, 2005. The lead organization will no longer be Accokeek Foundation. The project will be coordinated by Dr. John Teasdale at Beltsville Agricultural Research Station and day-to day operations will be the responsibility of Mark Davis. At year’s end, a request was made to SARE headquarters to change the financial administration of the grant to another non-profit organization
Scott Hertzberg has been chosen to be the 5th cooperator to replace the Ecosystem Farm. Scott and his wife, Tanya Tolchen, operate a family farm in Prince George’s County, MD, the same county as the Ecosystem Farm. In 2004, they built a high tunnel that is similar in size, height and construction as the tunnels at the other four locations. They produce vegetables on an intensive small farm and market primarily through a CSA marketing system. They are examining the possibilities of shifting their farm from a part-time operation to a full-time operation. Scott attended the planning meeting in November.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
There was a field day held at the Hood Farm in September in which 42 Maryland Vo-Ag teachers spent four hours learning about the high tunnel. They were given a presentation by Rick Hood and Bryan Butler. It is hoped that information on intensive vegetable production will be included in the curricula of each of the teachers.
In October, an international group of 45 researchers who were in Washington DC to attend a USDA-sponsored conference on organic agriculture visited the Ecosystem Farm and the high tunnel. The visit provided an excellent forum for discussing intensive farming operations in the mid Atlantic regions.
There was a regular exchange of information among the research team of this project and the research team of the Beltsville High Tunnel Research project led by Mark Davis. He communicated information to both Dr. Teasdale and Dr. Krizek throughout the season. Mark’s participation in both projects provides a way to leverage the funds of this SARE grant and to get information to a wider audience. As both projects move forward, it is hoped that the Beltsville research team will be able to include replicated trials in their tunnels to address farmer issues that were identified on the farm of farmer-cooperators.
Information on progress within the tunnels was shared with the retail customers at each farm. In addition, a number of articles were printed in the weekly CSA newsletter (circulation 100) at the Ecosystem Farm.
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