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 throughout the Mid Atlantic region and to scientists at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center.
Each of the 5 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 2006, the farmers had their second full year of growing crops in their newly-constructed high tunnels.
In early January 2006 the Howard farm decided not to continue to participate in the high tunnel project. The research team concluded it would be difficult at this date to recruit a farmer replacement for the Howard’s for the 2006 season. The research team added the University of Maryland, Central Maryland Research Farm, Clarksville high tunnel to the project to bring the project back to 5 cooperators. The Clarksville high tunnel is managed by Maryland Cooperative Extension personnel Caragh Fitzgerald, Dave Clement and Bryan Butler. In all references to farmers, the Clarksville tunnel will be included as a “farmer”.
The entire group (the farmers and the research team) met for a full day on January 12, 2006. The cooperative working agreement with standardized activities that each farmer agreed to fulfill was signed by each of the participating cooperators present at this meeting. The agreement is not binding, but it forms a basis of understanding about the goals of the project. Tomato varieties, fertility, fall crops, cover crops, unmarketable fruit and data collection were topics discussed during the meeting.
Using grant funds, Amada Dell returned as a part time research technician for the 2006 season. She is a student at The University of Maryland. Amanda traveled from farm to farm throughout the main part of the summer growing season as she did in 2005. 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 was “our one set of eyes” and again did an excellent job.
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.
Another goal is to do an excellent 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. We wish is 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.
To achieve that goal, a half day planning meeting was held on December 13, 2006 with all farmers and members of the research team in attendance. The 2006 successful year in review and initial planning for the 2007 growing season were discussed. A second full day planning meeting will be held on January 11, 2007 to prepare for the coming growing season.
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. For 2006 it was decided that there would be 1 row, 48’ long of the variety ‘Oregon Spring’ and 2 rows of a variety determined by each farmer to best suit their marketing demands. The plants were produced by the same Maryland-certified organic commercial grower as in 2005.
Concurrent work was conducted by Mark Davis, Don Krizek 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 and late part of the growing season. Observations from the Beltsville tunnels were shared with the farmers in this SARE project. From the early observations in 2005, the cultivar “Oregon Spring” showed promise as being cold tolerant, having early season vigor and producing a red marketable fruit with good flavor and texture.
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 of the January 12, 2006 meeting, data collection was standardized to consist of marketable tomatoes only. The un-marketable fruit were collected and discarded the same as field harvest. Amanda Dell collected the data on a weekly basis.
In 2006, farmers harvested according to their own plans. 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. The research team will analyze the 2006 results, which will be used in the final report.
In early spring 2006 soil samples and compost/manure samples from each farm were collected and then submitted to Walters Lab for analysis. With these results, each farmer developed an individualized fertility plans for their tunnel. Trickle irrigation was installed, and the beds were covered with red plastic. Each farmer was instructed to stake tomatoes according to their own plans.
The Gurley’s developed an innovative method to provide nutrients in their high tunnel. They plant an Austrian winter pea cover crop in the tunnel in late November. In February they place their portable chicken pen inside the tunnel. Over the course of the next two months they move the chicken pen over the entire tunnel floor and the chickens eat the pea cover crop, work the soil and distribute manure throughout the tunnel for the benefit of the early spring planted tomatoes.
One question that continually arises from farmers is “What is the difference of the air temperature inside the tunnel and the air temperature outside the tunnel? The project team thought we could begin to answer this question by purchasing with grant funds and installing HOBO micro-station data loggers with two air temperature sensors for four of the five cooperator high tunnels. One temperature sensor was mounted in the inside center of the high tunnel and the second sensor was mounted on the outside of the high tunnel. Temperature readings are being recorded at 15 minute intervals and the data will be analyzed in winter of 2007. The temperature recording will continue for the 2007 growing season.
Mark Davis and Bryan Butler made regular visits to each farm early in the growing season before Amanda Dell began her work. Mark Davis delivered the tomato transplants to each farmer to coincide with their planting schedule. In the fall Mark Davis and Bryan Butler made farm visits as needed.
In 2006, three of the cooperating farms produced good tomato yields, one farm produced exceptional high tomato yields over a very long season, and one farm produced very low tomato yields. The quality of tomatoes grown in a high tunnel is consistently of higher quality than tomatoes grown in the field. This is particularly true with heirloom varieties.
The Gurley farm and Hertzberg farm high tunnels consistently produced good yields throughout the growing season. They were able to harvest and market high tunnel tomatoes at the same time that they were harvesting and marketing field-grown tomatoes.
The best yielding tomatoes were found at the Kerney Farm this year. Their management of the high tunnel was exceptional. The design of their tomato trellising and pruning system allowed for indeterminant varieties to grow to over eight feet tall and produce a tremendous quantity and exceptional yield of tomatoes well into early November.
The Hood farm tomato yields were very low due to insect problems and irrigation issues. Tomato yield results from the Hood farm did not produce sufficient return on investment in 2006 after a very successful 2005.
The Clarksville tunnel had 2 rows of “Oregon Spring” tomatoes. Production and quality was excellent from mid June through early summer. As expected the “Oregon Spring” season was over by late July.
At each location, the farmers made decisions on what to plant in the beds that were not used for growing tomatoes. Specialty green beans, herbs and mixed greens have been very successful. The Clarksville site had a very successful and profitable early season strawberry crop in 2006.
The time period from early November to early March in a high tunnel can be profitable times for some enterprising farmers with fall and winter markets. The Kerney’s plant fall spinach in their tunnel after the tomato season is over. They harvest excellent quality and quantity spinach in the early winter and late winter until they plant tomatoes again in late March.
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.
Conducting on-farm research is always a challenge. In some on-farm research projects, researchers merely put plots on a commercial farm. However, our goal is 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 project is meant to observe and document high tunnel farming practices that contribute to profitability.
We continue to be reminded that the normal stresses and problems of farming were 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. The 2006 growing season was a successful season but it did have some problems as any season does during the year.
In 2006, insect issues came to the forefront early in the season. The weather was mild and aphid populations got an early and strong start. First, aphids-then-whiteflies-then-mites-then tomato rust mite populations became concerns at almost all our sites over the course of the season. All producers were told about the growing insect populations and the potential impacts on their crops in the tunnels as the pest were detected during regular weekly scouting visits. Control options were presented to the growers which would match their operations whether organic or conventional.
Certain growers decided to aggressively control the insects while others took a wait and see attitude to let natural predators come in, or, they hoped the insects and mites would just move on.
The growers that got a good handle on the insect problem early had the best yields and highest profitability. Those that did not effectively treat the insects or mites not only lost yield but also prematurely lost their plants. The level of the response to the insect problems on each farm greatly determined the degree of success or failure of their high tunnel for 2006. From these problems there were valuable lessons learned. We were all reminded that a high tunnel is a confined growing area and the key to profitability in a tunnel is to maximize production with good tunnel management.
As a result of our experiences in 2006, coupled with interaction with other high tunnel producers, we have incorporated an Entomologist into our final year to help us determine action thresholds for insects in high tunnels.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
During 2006, many outreach activities such as high tunnel field days, numerous telephone and email correspondences, on-farm visits with farmers, poster and conference presentations occurred. On January 12, 2006, Amanda Dell and Bryan Butler gave a power point presentation to 53 attendees 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.
Mark Davis, Bryan Butler, Rick Hood and Jack Gurley gave a six hour pre-conference presentation “High Tunnels, From Construction to Production” at the “Marketing for Success” conference in Morgantown, WV in February 2006 to 58 participants.
Mark Davis gave a presentation “High Tunnel Basics” at the “Small Family Farm” conference in Princess Anne, MD in March 2006 to 23 people.
Mark Davis gave a presentation and tour of the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center high tunnels to 12 Maryland Cooperative Extension new faculty in-service in April 2006.
Future Harvest, Maryland Cooperative Extension and Mark Davis collaborated on three high tunnel field days in 2006: 1) Baltimore County at the Gurley’s Calvert Gift Farm, 93 attendees, 2) Garrett County with Willie Lantz, 36 attendees and 3) Howard County at the CMREC Clarksville farm, 24 attendees.
There continues to be a regular exchange of information among the research team of this project and the research team of the Beltsville High Tunnel Research project. Mark Davis regularly communicates 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 by farmer-cooperators.
In addition to the value of these activities, it is the development of new working partnerships with farmers, cooperative extension personnel and researchers and the expansion of existing partnerships, is the reason this project is having such a large multiplier effect.
As this project ends its second year there have been 18 new high tunnels constructed
as a direct result of this project’s research results and outreach activities. A new on-farm high tunnel project will begin on 2 farms in central Maryland in 2007. The purpose of this project is to determine which high value crops grow best in a high tunnel and provide the maximum return per square foot inside the tunnel as possible. The results from this project will add to the rotational options for the region’s small-scale, direct market vegetable farms.
The West Virginia Cooperative Extension Service (WVU CES) is in the process of building one high tunnel at their organic research farm in Morgantown and another high tunnel at a cooperating farm in Preston County, WV is already completed. They also are planning to build two more high tunnels in the southern part of the state. The outcomes from their research and outreach activities from these high tunnels will surely have a positive impact and lead to increasing the numbers of high tunnels in WV and western Maryland. The development of the WVU high tunnel research project is a direct result of this grant project. While personal relationships were established earlier with WVU CES, it is because of this grant’s outreach activities and the people of the research team and the people at WVU CES this grant project is truly becoming a regional project.
The synergy from this project is having a substantial positive impact on increasing the profitability of the regions small scale vegetable farms which have adopted high tunnel technology.
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