Developing farm-to-institution grower capacity for leafy green vegetables in the Eastern Panhandle Region of West Virginia

Project Overview

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2016: $14,965.00
Projected End Date: 10/31/2018
Grant Recipient: West Virginia University
Region: Northeast
State: West Virginia
Project Leader:
Dr. Lewis Jett
West Virginia University

Annual Reports

Information Products


  • Vegetables: greens (leafy), greens (lettuces)


  • Crop Production: double cropping, intercropping, multiple cropping
  • Education and Training: extension, on-farm/ranch research, workshop
  • Energy: solar energy
  • Farm Business Management: marketing management, farm-to-institution
  • Pest Management: botanical pesticides, cultural control
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture
  • Soil Management: soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: new business opportunities, social networks

    Proposal abstract:

    The Eastern Panhandle area of West Virginia is a region in northeast West Virginia with a base population of approximately 260,000 residents. This region is part of a larger regional area of northern Virginia, Maryland and the Washington, D.C metropolitan area with a population base of approximately 8 million residents and is the fastest growing region in West Virginia. Historically, the area has been a commercial tree fruit production area with the dominant form of marketing primarily regional wholesaling and on-farm markets. The Eastern Panhandle agricultural economy is in transition as many of the larger orchards have consolidated or have been sold for commercial development. Some of the larger farms have been subdivided, and new farmers have entered the region on small parcels of land. One potentially sustainable market outlet in the region is the Farm-to Institution market in which local schools and hospitals have been purchasing some local produce. Specifically, the institutions have been requesting leafy greens such as lettuce and spinach over a 9 -12 month duration per year. Currently, the local supply has not been able to keep pace with the demand for products such as leafy greens. This project will focus on key management practices which can rapidly help growers in the region such as seasonal leafy green variety selection for high and low tunnels; sequential planting schedules; record keeping; predicting harvest; postharvest handling; food safety and economics.   We will develop a nucleus of producers who will serve as educators and mentors for new producers in the region.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    This project will focus on two leafy green vegetables: lettuce (head) and (baby leaf) spinach, which have strong demand by schools and hospitals. There are numerous varieties of head lettuce and spinach with varying degrees of tolerance to environmental factors such as temperature and day length.

       Scheduling these crops is important for an uninterrupted supply. Growers must have regional crop schedules in which the optimal dates of seeding, transplanting and harvest for each crop are known. We will create succession crop graphs which can predict harvest dates for each planting date.    There is very little economic information related to high tunnel crop production in the Mid-Atlantic area. Creating enterprise budgets for head lettuce and spinach will help growers determine breakeven prices for each crop. Growers of leafy green vegetables must be trained in production, food safety and postharvest handling. Leafy greens are perishable and must be harvested at the proper growth stage for optimal yield and quality.

    Specialty crop growers will have access to information they will need to increase the capacity of leafy green vegetables for Farm-to-Institution markets. We will create a nucleus of new specialty crop producers who are skilled in production, postharvest handling and f

    High and Low Tunnel Evaluations:

    The West Virginia University Kearneysville Tree Fruit Research and Education Center is located in Jefferson County, West Virginia and is a research and demonstration site for specialty crop production in the Eastern Panhandle region. In 2014, the Project Leader (PL) constructed a mobile, 30 ft. wide x 72 ft. long high tunnel which will serve as a research site for leafy green vegetable evaluations. The two cooperating farms in this partnership have stationary high tunnels of similar dimensions.

    The low tunnel design used for this evaluation will be a proprietary model sold by Martins Produce Supply in Shippensburg, PA. These low tunnels are approximately 4 ft. wide x4 ft. high, 0.25 inch diameter conduit pipe which are covered with medium to heavy weight row cover fabric (0.8-1.25 oz./yd2) and plastic (4 mil.) during the winter months. During the warm season (June-September), white or reflective shade fabric (47%) will be used on the low tunnels to reduce light and temperature.

    Leafy Greens Variety Evaluations:

    A head lettuce variety trial will be initiated in 2016 to begin screening adaptable varieties of romaine and bibb lettuce for high and low tunnel production in the Eastern Panhandle region. Approximately 30 head lettuce cultivars including 15 bibb and 15 romaine types will be evaluated. In addition, 15 savoy and smooth leaf spinach varieties will be evaluated in high and low tunnels for baby leaf production.

    Each high tunnel or low tunnel structure will be a replication or block. The dimensions of each high tunnel are 30 ft. wide x 72 ft. long with all structures having double polyethylene cover. No supplemental heat will be used. Row covers will be used within high tunnels when the ambient temperature <28°F. The plots for each cultivar will be a minimum of 2.6 x4 ft. with plants spaced equidistantly approximately 10 inches (lettuce) or <1 inch (spinach) within the row. The lettuce plots will be established using 4-week-old plugs planted on black or white mulch (depending on season) while the spinach will be seeded on bare soil with no mulch. The PL will grow plugs for all cooperators. Evaluations will begin in spring 2016 which will enable 2-3 spring/early summer evaluations and potentially 3-4 fall/winter evaluations. Varieties which bolt, turn bitter or have tip burn will be recorded.

    We are assuming an average production cycle of 60-80 days per lettuce crop and 25-50 days for spinach. The production cycle will lengthen as crops are sequentially planted later in fall. Spinach will be grown for baby leaf size which requires a denser planting arrangement and shorter production cycle. Baby leaf spinach will be harvested when the average leaf length is less than 2 inches and head lettuce harvested when the average diameter is 10-12 inches. The number of multiple harvests for the baby leaf spinach will be recorded by cultivar and growing season.   Harvesting will be ceased when quality and vigor of the spinach is significantly reduced. Some varieties of spinach may bolt when day length exceeds 14 h. Data loggers will be placed within high and low tunnels at each location to measure soil temperature, air temperature and relative humidity. Lettuce and spinach will be evaluated year-round in either high or low tunnel protected culture systems. Head lettuce will not be overwintered in low tunnels. All crops will be drip irrigated and IPM practices employed using recommendations from the 2016 Commercial Vegetable Production Recommendations.

    Evaluation of Optimal Planting Establishment Method for Head Lettuce:

    Protected culture method (i.e., high and low tunnel) will be the main plot. One planting in the spring and fall/winter season will be conducted to evaluate the optimal plant establishment method. One variety of romaine (e.g., ‘Green Forest’) and bibb (‘Harmony’) head lettuce will be direct seeded or transplanted. The varieties will be the split plot with planting method the split-split plots. Stand percentage, labor, vigor, days to first harvest, fresh weight per unit area, quality, stress and pest tolerance will be evaluated for planting method.

    Sequential Planting Evaluations:

    A variety of head lettuce (bibb and romaine) and spinach which has acceptable horticulture traits within a specific warm and cool growing season will be chosen for sequential planting studies. The varieties will be sequentially direct seeded (spinach) or transplanted (lettuce) at 10-14 day intervals per growing season within a high tunnel or low tunnel structure. For example, in the spring/summer season (March 1-June 1) and the fall/winter cropping cycle, (August 1-November 1), a total of twelve sequential plantings will be made. The fall/winter planting evaluation will be planted in the same beds used for spring/summer production. A planting log will be created to determine a date of harvest from sowing date based on the season of the year and season extension structure. Each planting date will be replicated a minimum of three times per cultivar. This evaluation will determine the planting window for head lettuce and baby leaf spinach for uninterrupted supply throughout the year. Sequential planting evaluations will be performed at the WVU Kearneysville Tree Fruit Research and Education Center by the PL

    Record Keeping and Enterprise Budget Development:

    Grower-cooperators will keep a log of production inputs related to head lettuce and spinach production within high and low tunnels. One cooperator uses organic inputs while the PL and another cooperator will be using synthetic inputs so an enterprise budget for both conventional and organic production of the leafy green crops will be created.  

    Postharvest and Food Safety Training:

    Each site will serve as a training platform for new growers wishing to grow leafy greens for the Farm-to-School/Institution program. Two counties in the Eastern Panhandle will be the school buyers while the regional Veterans Administration Hospital in Martinsburg, WV will be the hospital buyer. Growers will be trained on the proper method of harvesting both head lettuce and baby leaf spinach. Proper washing, packaging and cooling will be demonstrated. Proper sanitation and food safety best management practices for leafy greens will be documented and provided to all interested growers.    


     May 15, 2016: Establish leafy green cultivar evaluation test plots at cooperator’s farms and WVU Kearneysville Farm. Project Leader will grow all lettuce plugs (transplants) for cooperators. Spinach will be direct seeded. Assemble low tunnel structures. Cooperators will record labor and other input costs.

    June 5, 2016: Cooperating growers and PL will meet with institutional food service directors to discuss postharvest handling, packaging, and food safety specifications for leafy greens.

    August 10, 2016: Begin sequential planting evaluation of head lettuce and spinach at WVU Kearneysville Farm. Begin harvest of baby leaf spinach cultivar evaluations. Conduct a workshop with cooperators and interested growers demonstrating harvest and postharvest handling.

    August 20, 2016: Evaluate planting methods (transplant vs. direct seeding) for 2 cultivars of head lettuce within high and low tunnels during warm season.

    August 25, 2016: Conduct a leafy greens IPM workshop with cooperators and other interested growers.

    October 1, 2016: Harvest cultivar trials. Instruct growers on techniques to harvest, cool, wash and package lettuce and loose-leaf, baby spinach. Leafy greens will be transported immediately to cooperating schools and/or VA hospital.

    October 2016: Begin harvest of sequential planting trials. Conduct a workshop on harvesting for head and loose-leaf greens. Postharvest handling workshop will be conducted with cooperators and interested growers in the Eastern Panhandle region.

    June 1, 2017: Evaluate heat tolerance of head lettuce and spinach varieties in high and low tunnels with shade fabric.

    August 1, 2017: Establish fall/winter season cultivar evaluations of head lettuce and spinach in high and low tunnel systems. Cooperators will record labor and production inputs

    August 5, 2017: Evaluate sequential planting of head lettuce and spinach in the cool season.

    August 25, 2017: Begin harvest of trials. Leafy greens will be transported immediately to cooperating schools and hospital.

    September, 2017:   Evaluate planting methods (transplant vs. direct seeding) for 2 cultivars of head lettuce within high and low tunnels during cool season.

    November, 2017: Conduct grower workshops on harvesting and postharvest handling of leafy greens in cool weather. Protocol for using row covers within high tunnels will be discussed.

    December, 2017: Continue harvesting trial plots. Measure nitrate levels of winter lettuce and spinach. Begin analysis of data. Submit variety trial data to Variety Trial Reports.

    January, 2018: Create enterprise budgets for high and low tunnel leafy greens (conventional and organic). Write a production guide for high tunnel head lettuce and spinach production.

    February, 2018: Present results at Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Conference and West Virginia Small Farm Conference.

    February, 2018: Cooperators and PL meet with institutional buyers to discuss supply and postharvest issues.

    March, 2018: Develop a succession planting graph for high and low tunnel head lettuce and baby leaf spinach production.

    March 31, 2018: Project end date. Final report

    Outreach plan

    We will host four workshops at cooperator’s farms and the WVU Kearneysville Farm training growers on topics such as production, IPM, harvesting, postharvest handling, economics, marketing and food safety of head lettuce and baby leaf spinach for institutional markets.

    Results will be presented at the 2017 Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Conference in Hershey, PA and the West Virginia Small Farm Conference in Charleston, WV. West Virginia University Extension Personnel will be informed of results at the annual agriculture extension conference in spring, 2017 and 2018. Digital images of leafy greens production, postharvest handling and food safety will be taken. Images will be used to create Powerpoint presentations and publications for educating new growers interested in leafy green production.

    Enterprise budgets will be incorporated in a high tunnel and low tunnel leafy green fact sheet or production guide created by the PL and published through WVU Extension Service. The production guide will be available as a hard copy or printable document from the WVU Extension Commercial Horticulture website. Cultivar trial results will be published in the Midwest Variety Trial Report, and variety recommendations added to the 2017-18 Mid-Atlantic Vegetable Production Guide.

    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.