Supporting New High-Tunnel Vegetable Growers with a Comprehensive Crop Management Approach

Project Overview

LNE22-445
Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2022: $199,688.00
Projected End Date: 02/28/2025
Grant Recipient: University of Vermont
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Dr. Margaret Skinner
University of Vermont

Commodities

  • Vegetables: cucurbits, eggplant, greens (leafy), greens (lettuces), peppers, tomatoes

Practices

  • Crop Production: high tunnels or hoop houses, multiple cropping, nutrient management, varieties and cultivars
  • Education and Training: decision support system, demonstration, farmer to farmer, technical assistance, workshop
  • Natural Resources/Environment: habitat enhancement
  • Pest Management: biological control, biorational pesticides, cultural control, disease vectors, integrated pest management, prevention, sanitation, trap crops, traps
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture, transitioning to organic
  • Soil Management: soil analysis, soil quality/health

    Proposal abstract:

    Problem/Opportunity: Northeastern climate is changing, characterized by more extreme, unpredictable weather. Growing vegetables in protected environments is critical to ensure a stable supply of locally-grown produce year-round and for the sustainability and economic viability of diversified agriculture. An estimated 18,000 high tunnels cover >36 million sq.ft in the region; >4,300 will be erected this year. High-tunnel crop revenues are greater than those for field-grown crops. Enterprise budgets show tunnel tomato yields of 3 lbs/ft2, generating ~65 tons/acre, compared to 5 tons/acre for field-grown tomatoes. Annual revenues from high tunnels can exceed $13/ft2 ($26,000/2,000 ft2 tunnel) for tomato/winter green rotations. While some growers have used high tunnels for decades, many are new, having grown crops in high tunnels for <5 years. Many lack knowledge about high-tunnel soil fertility demands and pest/disease management. Project team members are frequently contacted by producers with new tunnels, seeking assistance with crop selection and developing water/nutrient and pest management plans. Evaluations from previous events demonstrate that new producers are intimidated by highly technical discussions.  Best practices (BP) exist for high-tunnel production, but are splintered and hard to assimilate. A comprehensive guide of current BPs is needed compiling the multiple components. Conferences on high-tunnel production are available, but new growers need one-on-one, hands-on training tailored to their knowledge level and goals, supplemented with web-based educational materials. We need to meet them where they are, with more basic information and practical resources.

    Solution and Approach:

    Production within high tunnels extends the growing season and provides more consistent growing conditions, allowing for cultivation of sensitive high-value crops. This education project focuses on needs of new growers, introducing them to Best Practices (BP) for pest/disease, crop and fertility management. A 3-pronged program will introduce new growers to integrated approaches for managing arthropod pests, diseases, and soil fertility in high-tunnel vegetables. 1) New VT and NH growers will receive one-on-one training from team members. Growers will identify crop production/protection goals to ensure training meets their specific needs. Site visits and on-line sessions will be held to develop crop production plans. On-farm demonstrations will showcase adoption of BPs and connect new and experienced growers to share knowledge as a learning community. 2) Information from grower interactions will inform development of educational materials, which will be compiled into a High-Tunnel Production Toolkit for both new and experienced growers in a user-friendly format. 3) Workshop sessions targeted to needs of new growers will be held at our established regional high-tunnel conferences. These conferences continue a 7-year tradition and are tailored for growers of all skill levels across the Northeast. BP adoption will be tracked through surveys and personal interviews to determine which practices offer the greatest benefits in terms of crop yield and quality.

    Performance targets from proposal:

    Fifty new northern New England vegetable growers will each adopt three recommended best practices (BP) to manage their high-tunnel crops on a total of ~200,000 sq. ft., and 75% will meet their annual economic and crop production goals. BPs will be tailored to their individual production goals, and include scouting for pests, diseases and nutrient deficiencies; handling problems proactively and amending cropping areas based on soil tests.

    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.