Beginning-farmer Research and Instruction on Growing in High Tunnels

Project Overview

OW17-043
Project Type: Professional + Producer
Funds awarded in 2017: $49,999.00
Projected End Date: 10/31/2020
Grant Recipient: Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association
Region: Western
State: California
Principal Investigator:

Information Products

Commodities

  • Fruits: berries (brambles), berries (strawberries)
  • Vegetables: eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, herbs, leafy greens

Practices

  • Crop Production: high tunnels or hoop houses, low tunnels, season extension types and construction
  • Education and Training: demonstration, display, on-farm/ranch research, technical assistance, workshop
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture

    Abstract:

    Since 2001, the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) has provided educational, marketing and farm business opportunities to aspiring, beginning, and socially-disadvantaged farmers on 100 certified organic acres in the heart of the Salinas Valley.

    Launching a small farm business in the Salinas Valley, a multi-billion dollar agricultural industry, may seem like a challenging proposition. The prime agricultural land in the region is dominated by large farms that grow a limited range of vegetable crops and berries on a large scale with a focus on high yields and efficiency. Most of the product is exported around the country and world, hence the name ‘Salad Bowl of America’. However, the growing demand for local and organic produce has created a tangible alternative opportunity for ALBA’s small-scale farmers. ALBA is located less than 100 miles from the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the largest markets for organic produce in the nation. Our food hub, ALBA Organics, aggregates and markets the produce of our small farmers and has returned $15 million to these growing businesses since 2010. However, small-scale farmers must continually innovate and adapt to maintain their foothold in the region’s competitive markets, whether selling wholesale or direct-to-consumers.

    Extending the season and raising productivity with a high tunnel is one such approach. A high tunnel is a portable structure that is covered in UV resistant polyethylene plastic. It has the ability to roll up the sides and open both ends to supply ventilation for both air movement and temperature control. The use of these structures is not without precedent at ALBA. From 2010-12, ALBA provided outreach and education to help regional farmers pilot the NRCS high tunnel cost-share, resulting in 8 tunnels being built on our land. The NRCS’ high tunnel promotion was based on the idea that these structures, by extending the season, could increase the amount of food grown with less transportation miles and associated CO2 emissions.

    Since the pilot, ALBA farmers have continued to successfully build high tunnel structures, mostly with the help of cost-share through the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program. However, the results have been mixed with a few farmers achieving high levels of productivity and profitability while many others have struggled with basic planning and production issues. Furthermore, since ALBA’s work with the NRCS, many of the tunnel structures have been sold by farmers transitioning off ALBA’s land to a new generation of farmers in the Organic Farm Incubator. Indeed, the proposed project is uniquely poised to leverage past work, and address the interest and needs of a new generation of ALBA farmers who want to get started and improve their ability to grow in high tunnels.

    All over the country, high tunnel production has shown promise as a low-cost way for farmers to increase profits by extending the growing season. While extension of a harvest season is a key component to an increased yield on a given piece of land — and thus a direct and important contributor to potential profitability — it also has important secondary effects. The amount of time a farmer is able to bring a crop to market adds value to any wholesale buyer or direct buyer of consistent volume, such as a restaurant. Even a two week extension on either (or both) sides of the season often brings the additional advantage of higher prices and the coveted first-to-market position.

    While season extension is the most discussed advantage of high tunnel use, it also:

    ·         Shortens the period from planting to harvest, potentially adding more production cycles.

    ·         Increases crop quality, yield and pack-out rate through several means, such as keeping off unwanted rains; reduction of pests; reduction of wind; and providing a structure for vertical growing.

    ·         Provides a year round work space. With labor in short supply in California, year round work can help retain workers. High tunnels can provide a place to maintain work even during rainy and cold weather.

    ·         Allows for transplant production. Large nurseries either decline or charge high rates for growing out small batch orders of transplants. A tunnel structure allows a space for farmers to grow some of their own transplants.

    ·         Reduces water use and associated addition of salts, chlorine and other harmful elements to the soil

    ·         Less fertilizer and pesticide inputs; and prevention of chemical drift.

    Regionally, there are anecdotes of high yields and increased crop quality of vegetable crops for farmers utilizing high tunnels, however there has been little research performed to support these claims. The Salinas Valley is a region with a very mild climate, and many of the tools, research and resources related to high tunnel production are focused on colder regions and also not available bilingually. A key feature of the project will be the high tunnel research performed by project project professionals (PP) and farmers (F) in ALBA’s demonstration field and leased parcels:

    Ø  Side-by-side trials (in and out of tunnel) for at least five different vegetables crops (PP&F);

    Ø  Measurements on days to maturity, yield, and pack-out rate (PP&F);

    Ø  Temperature inside the high tunnel throughout the season (PP);

    Ø  Regular observation of pest pressure and irrigation needs (PP).

    ALBA’s Beginning-farmer Research and Instruction on Growing in High Tunnels (BRIGHT) project will help fill an important research gap and provide the on the ground technical assistance that ALBA farmers need to achieve higher levels of productivity with this technology.

    Project objectives:

    The goal of BRIGHT is to perform research and provide education that advances high tunnel production amongst small-scale farmers in the
    Salinas Valley.

    I. Perform innovative research on high tunnel production and disseminate results to a regional network.

    The research and demonstration component of the project will add to the body of knowledge on high tunnel production for our area. Historically,
    tunnels have had little use in vegetable crops in our region, but are widely used in caneberries. ALBA will construct a high tunnel (250’ x 24’ x
    12’) in its 1.25 acre demonstration field. This tunnel will be used for research, as well as demonstration highlighted in trainings. Farmers will use
    existing or new tunnels to perform their own research and provide demonstrations, as well. All of the research results will be integrated into
    trainings, materials and tools, including a fact sheet mailed to 300+ regional, mostly Hispanic small-scale farmers.

    II. Educate small-scale farmers on high tunnel production.

    Over one hundred (100) aspiring and beginning farmers will demonstrate increased understanding of high tunnel production topics through 2
    workshops per year, 1 high tunnel construction field day, and new educational tools. The training materials (presentation outlines, fact sheet, and a new ‘season extension’ section in the Organic Vegetable Production module) will be integrated into ALBA’s Farmer Education Course, providing
    bilingual high tunnel production to farmers into the future.

    III. Provide hands-on technical assistance to ‘core’ participants to improve high tunnel production.

    Five farmers who are currently farming with high tunnels will receive extensive hands-on technical assistance that leads to improved productivity.
    Services will include advising on ground preparation, crop selection, irrigation, fertilization, pest management, and tunnel maintenance and
    improvements. We will also screen for and assist farmers applying for NRCS EQIP. The measurable results will include 75% increases in
    productivity in the tunnel space for core participants by year 2, and three new tunnels being constructed.

    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.