Extending the Season on your Farm - Plan Now for Next Year

Posted: October 30, 2010

Market growers are using many ways to extend the growing and marketing season. Some of these methods, like using cold frames and raised beds are time-tested, standard practices. However, in the last 20 years or so, many new methods have been developed. To stay competitive while tapping the early and late season markets, many growers plant early under clear plastic, use low tunnels or high tunnels, and the consensus is clear. These practices work.
Matt Reiss continues to harvest tomatoes from his high tunnel into November.

Matt Reiss continues to harvest tomatoes from his high tunnel into November.

Matt Reiss from Faust Family Produce in Nazareth, PA is a great example of a grower who has adopted season extension practices and he enthusiastically explains how it has affected his business. He has two high tunnels and plants nearly all his tomatoes in them. He carefully selects tomato varieties considering their dates to maturity and plants them in sequence to keep his production coming. Thanks to the protection of the high tunnels, Matt starts harvesting tomatoes in early July and picks into November. He recognized the return on his investment in the structure through the increase in production, "You usually get all your cost back the first year." Matt also appreciates the added benefit of having less disease pressure in his high tunnels. "I don't spray my tomatoes at all there." he said.

What season extension practices will work best for you? Consider the capital and labor investment in relation to the return from your markets.

Planting under clear perforated plastic in early spring is best achieved if you have access to a plastic laying machine. It is important to get the plastic down correctly so you maximize the protected growing space, but lay it tightly enough to keep it in place despite strong spring winds. Some growers share a machine and the cost the plastic. The plastic has to be removed when the crop is big enough but not too big, and before the temperatures get too high, so having time to do this at the right time is important.

Low tunnels are built from wire hoops that support a plastic or fabric row cover. Most low tunnels are 14-18 inches tall and wide enough to cover the planting bed. There are many different types of covers available, including a type with pre-cut slits to allow hot air to escape on sunny days. Low tunnels are generally labor intensive to put up, but can offer inexpensive benefits to small scale growers who have enough labor available.

High tunnels are covered with a single layer of plastic and do not have a heating system. Their plastic sides are rolled up to ventilate the structure or lowered to keep heat in, depending on the weather conditions. Most growers use drip irrigation inside tunnels and they can carefully regulate the amount of irrigation the crop receives.

There are 39 high tunnels at the Penn State Center for Plasticulture Research in Rock Springs, PA. One of the issues this team is working on is how to manage salt accumulation in the soils protected by the tunnels. With no rainfall to leach inputs from the soil, salts can build up. One strategy to alleviate this problem is using moveable tunnels. They are built on tracks and slide so they can cover more than one spot throughout the season. Penn State is building two moveable tunnels, so we can look forward to results of future experiments conducted there.

If you'd like to try season extension practices on your farm, use this winter to plan for next season. There is a lot of information available and it is important to do your homework. Some good sources of information include your county's Extension Office, The Penn State High Tunnel Manual (can be ordered by contacting your county extension office), and the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service.