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High Tunnel Hacks: Farmer-Sourced Tips and Strategies for Efficient and Successful Year-Round Production

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2019 August Issue Newsletter

By Allison Houghton and Caro Roszell

Now that we are in the hottest part of the summer, it’s tempting to start thinking ahead to the cold days of winter when the sweat and excessive growth and barely-managed chaos of summer fecundity has given way to sweaters, thermoses, and the constrained and ordered growth of high tunnel production. 

NOFA/Mass has just completed a three-year project funded by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) in which we identified a cohort of experienced farmers, each of whom had a very different but innovative approach to high tunnel management and winter growing. The farmers who contributed to this project included Jeremy Barker-Plotkin (Simple Gifts Farm), Skip Paul (Wishing Stone Farm), Steve Chiazario and Laura Tangerini (Tangerini’s Spring Street Farm), Daniel Botkin (Laughing Dog Farm) Derek Christianson (Brix Bounty Farm), Jim Schultz (Red Shirt Farm) and Bill Braun (Ivory Silo Farm). The farmers in the project contributed in a variety of ways: mentoring beginning farmers, giving seminars and on-farm workshops, teaching at our Winter Conference and Summer Conference, and working with NOFA/Mass technical writer Allison Houghton on a set publications that detail their innovative approaches to high tunnel growing and season extension. 

The result is six Fact Sheets—paper copies of which will be available at the NOFA/Mass table at the NOFA Summer Conference—which detail practices ranging from how to apply permaculture principles in the high tunnel to how to build a super-efficient climate-battery greenhouse and how to build your own affordable and durable heated bench system from radiant heat panels designed for pools and flooring. (Note: The PDFs may at first seem to be laid out a little oddly—it’s so they can be printed and folded into mini 4-page booklets! Use the page numbers at the bottom of the sheets to read the PDFs in order). 

The sixth fact sheet, called High Tunnel Hacks, is a collection of helpful ideas about winter production and marketing that Allison came across in working with the growers that just didn’t quite fit into each farmer’s more detailed fact sheet. Check out the full text of that sheet below.  For the other five detailed sheets, check out our webpage High Tunnels Resources for Organic Growers or visit our NOFA/Mass info table at the NOFA Summer Conference to pick up paper copies. 

Winter Greens beds at Tangerini’s Spring Street FarmA Pick-Your-Own Share for Winter Greens 

Tangerini’s Spring Street Farm, Millis, MA 

Tangerini’s Spring Street Farm has a unique way to distribute their winter greens: a pick-your-own winter greens share offered to their Summer CSA members. The high tunnel is planted with a beautiful array of greens (such as lettuce, kale, spinach, arugula, asian greens). The CSA members are given instructions on how much to pick (example: pick 2 full bags) and are sent a short YouTube video ahead
of time with specific instructions for how best to harvest the greens. Members are instructed to harvest the greens by progressively moving along the beds, picking up and moving flag markers to indicate where the next member should pick. The CSA members love having flexibility on when and what to pick. This share pairs well with a more traditional farmstand-style CSA of deep winter storage vegetables. 

 

Steve Chiarizio explains the winter greens production system at a December 13, 2018 farm tour and workshopDeveloping a Cold Hardy Greens Seed Mix 

Laughing Dog Farm, Gill, MA 

Danny Botkin at Laughing Dog Farm is developing unique, cold hardy seed mixes for winter growing. He mixes, scatters and germinates a wide variety of greens varieties (beet, kale, asian greens, annual herbs, lettuces etc...) in his high tunnels, and then proceeds to save seed from the mix, selecting for an even hardier, better tasting, and best seed-producing mix over time. The mix can be harvested multiple times and is used in salads or as a braising mix. He prefers this style of greens mix to growing one single variety of green. Seeds from his own mixes are saved and new seed is acquired and exchanged at seed swaps in the local community to continue to add regional diversity to his evolving seed mixes. The goal is to continue to have a regionally- adapted, hardy greens mix that produces excellent-tasting greens throughout the winter and be a radical participant in saving and producing seed on the farm. Danny mixes this strategy of broadcasting seeds with the more traditional method of starting seeds in trays for maximizing winter growing potential in his two permaculture- inspired high tunnels. 

 

Steaming Away the Weeds 

Wishing Stone Farm, Compton, RI 

Liz and Skip Paul at Wishing Stone Farm in Little Compton, RI have been growing in tunnels for over 12 years. They have over 15 high tunnel structures with their main structures ranging in size from 30’ x 96’ to 34’ x 150’. Chickweed was one of their biggest weed pressures which required a new management approach. 

They were able to find a 1960’s model steam weeder left over from the cut flower industry in Canada. The steamer’s boiler is mounted on a trailer that can be pulled by a truck or tractor. It takes about 3 hours to get up to temperature before it is used to inject superheated steam onto the surface of the bed to kill any weeds or weed seeds. Wishing Stone Farm targets September 20th to have old tomatoes plants removed and the beds rototilled, shaped and fertilized for winter growing. Then by September 28th, the steamer is rolled through the tunnels, followed by direct seeding of various greens. Once the greens are seeded, much care is given not to disturb the soil as chickweed responds readily to soil disturbance. 

If needed, Wishing Stone Farm uses a BCS power harrow to skim the first 1⁄4 inch of the soil to minimize new weed growth. Chickweed still emerges but at a more manageable rate. Although initially a big investment, (about $10k while a new model costs about $18k), the steamer has dramatically increased efficiency and minimized labor costs in winter greens production. Skip reports that Paul and Sandy Arnold in New York are also experimenting with steam weeders— including a system that would steam 3-4 inches deeper in the soil resulting in longer-lasting weed prevention for summer growing. 

Greens beds at Wishing Stone Farm (image courtesy of wishingstonefarm.com)Welded Rebar for DIY Caterpillar Tunnels 

Simple Gifts, Amherst, MA 

Jeremy Barker-Plotkin at Simple Gifts farm in Amherst, MA uses caterpillar tunnels for extending the season and supporting summer crops like tomatoes and cucumbers. He uses a simple but elegant solution for a DIY caterpillar tunnel: a hook welded onto a post of rebar. The rebar is pounded into the ground with the hook opening facing downward. The metal conduit hoops (already bent) are fitted on top the rebar to form the structure of the caterpillar tunnel. The hooks on the side of the rebar make it easy to lash the plastic skin of the caterpillar tunnel in place. Making the “rebar with hook” posts is also an excellent first welding project for new hires, says Jeremy. 

For more information on the wide range of uses of caterpillar tunnels check out the presentation from Ted Blomgren from UVM for ideas on how to use them: https://www.uvm.edu/vtvegandberry/Tunnel_ Conference_2012/BlomgrenCaterpillarTunnels.pdf

Molybdenum and Aphids on Winter Greens 

Brix Bounty Farm, Dartmouth, MA 

Aphids are not uncommon on winter greens in late winter and early spring
 in many high tunnels. Lesser known, however, is that aphid outbreaks in February or March are often a response to high nitrate levels in the plants. One way to manage the nitrates (and consequently the aphids) is the nutrient Molybdenum. Molybdenum (Mo) is a soil trace nutrient needed in very small amounts, and it is also key for the nitrate reductase enzyme helping to lower nitrates in soils and in your plants, especially in winter growing. 

Derek Christianson discusses plant spacing, fertility and other aspects of winter greens production at his High Tunnel workshop at Brix Bounty Farm on September 24, 2018.An ideal amount of Molybdenum on a Mehlich 3 soil test (such as from Logan Labs) is 0.5 to 1ppm. In practice Derek uses a soil drench of
 5g Sodium Molybdate (a good source with 39% Mo) per 1,000 sq ft. at the start of the season or approximately 1⁄2 oz Sodium Molybdate per 30’x96’ tunnel. If you plan to add compost to the tunnel in fall, you might consider mixing trace nutrients in with the compost application. Like many trace nutrients, great care must be taken when applying micronutrients to your land. If at all possible, find a source of Mo that is pelletized, contained within a blend of other micronutrients, or a liquid form such as those from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply or Advancing Eco Agriculture. Adding micronutrients is most effective when you add a carbon source (humates, compost, etc...) to minimize the potential of negative impacts to yourself and the land. 

 

 

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