WOOSTER, Ohio — High tunnels, raised beds, crop and plant diversity — they’re terms that are becoming commonplace on fruit and vegetable farms in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Fred Finney of Moreland Fruit Farm, in Wayne County, Ohio, invested in high tunnels about four years ago. Since then, he’s been able to increase the length of his growing season, and is doing a good job of fighting diseases associated with rain and uncontrolled climates.
But the big benefit to high tunnel production is the early harvest. In about two or three weeks, he hopes to start harvesting tomatoes from inside the high tunnels. Meanwhile, he’s just now planting tomatoes in his outdoor plots.
All of that means increased efficiency, and earlier sales at the farmers markets.
“We sell a lot of our things at a farmers market and this will give us tomatoes in about two to three weeks,” he said.
Gary Vogley, a grower at Vogley Enterprises in East Sparta, Ohio, is in his first year using high tunnels. He got creative, and is growing blackberries in the tunnels. So far, his crop is doing very well.
“You almost have to see it to believe it,” Vogley said. “They’re doing great.”
He uses three high tunnels, and a special kind of fertilizer, Bio Tech Nutrients, which he says helps take care of one of the biggest drawbacks to high tunnels — the buildup of salt.
His high tunnels weren’t cheap. Altogether, they cost him about $55,000. But he expects to get many years of use, and at least four years from the plastic.
And, he’ll get many benefits, including climate control, and will avoid costly losses from freezes — a major challenge to raising blackberries.
“That’s the payoff right there,” Vogley said.
At the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster, researcher Joe Kovach is trying to develop a system of small-scale production that will gross $90,000 per acre.
On May 20, he walked interested producers from the community through his 1-acre plot, where he grows produce using a wide variety of experimental production techniques — high tunnels, raised beds and crop diversification (polyculture).
A big feature of his soil is that it goes un-tilled.
“We don’t disrupt the soil,” he said. “Too many people end up over-tilling and we don’t want to do that.”
He raises strawberries and fruit trees in wooden framed boxes called raised beds, about a foot to a foot-and-a-half above the ground. Compared to the plants at groundlevel, raised beds produce plants much taller, with thicker stems and trunks and fuller leafage.
The raised beds do better, he said, because more air gets to the soil, and the soil is generally fluffier in texture. He estimates raised beds produce 25 to 125 percent more yield, depending on the type of plant.
His high tunnels cost about $9.50 a foot-row to buy, compared to the $10 per foot-row that he tries to gross. However, the tunnels can be used for many years beyond investment, with the overhead plastic lasting about four years.
He cautions growers, a high tunnel brings many benefits, but also some challenges. For instance, it can be difficult to move them once erected, so crop rotation can become more of a challenge. Also, high winds can tear a high tunnel to shreds or overturn it, if not secured during storms.
High tunnels or not, something all growers can benefit from are the principals of plant diversity.
Walking from one end of Kovach’s patch to another is like crossing a living maze, because plants are in different stages of maturity, and the same plant may be scattered and mixed throughout different corners.
That’s because he’s trying to find ways to confuse insects and diseases, which rely on pure stands and predictability to survive.
For instance, he knows many insects like to stay hidden in the same row of plants, to avoid open exposure to predators.
“It’s scary going across rows, you can get picked off by a predator,” he said, adding this is why he uses multiple rows, to provide more open space.
He uses three kinds of diversification to accomplish these goals — varying plant types (genetic), varying space types (spatial), and varying plant age and maturity (temporal).
Finney and Vogley have both seen Kovach’s plot, and adopted some of its concepts.
But Finney said it’s unlikely his farm will be grossing $90,000 per acre any time soon. The most he’s heard of is $30,000 per acre, for staked tomatoes, he said.
Vogley spoke cautiously of university research, but said what he’s seeing from high tunnels is very convincing, and he intends to continue using them.