Soil Matters: Best Management Practices for Long Term Profitable High Tunnel Operations

 High tunnels are a critical tool for many New York vegetable growers. These structures help growers extend the growing season and manage the challenges of increasingly volatile weather patterns. However, the best management practices (BMPs) to ensure soil health and fertility are not widely understood and many early adopters of high tunnels are encountering challenges.  This team jumped in to help.

This article was developed for the 2017 NYFVI annual report.

In April 2016, Andy Fellenz with NOFA-NY and Judson Reid with the Cornell Vegetable Program received a grant to further develop and share research based and farm tested BMPs to help growers maximize their profits with these structures.

The project proposal established aggressive performance targets: The first was to work directly with 15 growers to improve their high tunnel profitability by 25% and/or improve soil health by optimizing fertilizer inputs.  The second target was to extend that knowledge, and see an additional 50 growers adopt the BMPs for their operations.

By July 1, 2016, 15 farms had been recruited for the project. Of those, seven are certified organic, three are using organic practices but are not certified, and five are conventional farms. By studying farms with different management practices the team was able to identify challenges that were common or unique to each sector, then further develop a set of BMPs for soil health applicable to both organic and conventional farms. To keep these BMPs practical the team recruited 7 farms, representing a spectrum of management styles, to rank the BMPs for potential benefit to the industry.

The first step with each of the 15 participating farms was to gather spring soil and water samples to establish baseline values for nutrient management. Foliar tissue samples were then gathered throughout the growing season to understand nutrient demand of the plants and relationship between soil and foliar nutrient levels. Each sample result was followed by detailed recommendations from project staff to the grower.

Foliar and soil test results from this project as well as previous projects have been entered into a database, and can now be used to predict or support statements relating soil pH and nutrient values with foliar nutrient results. This work provides research-based evidence for the development of BMPs.

The project is garnering significant interest from the grower community. Since the project began in the spring of 2016, over 650 growers have received training in high tunnel soil health and fertility management at field meetings, workshops and conference sessions. Many more have been reached through the dozen articles that have been published in grower newsletters. The work has also been recognized though an article in a national magazine, Growing for Market.

The participating farmers have been strongly supportive of the project.  In 2016, a difficult growing season, they were able to increase their net income by 13.3%. The project team anticipates that with the 2017 harvest the project will reach its goal to improve high tunnel profitability by 25%.

 ““Learning about soil health to enhance our high tunnel tomato production has impacted the entire farm, We now use foliar testing to manage high tunnel tomatoes and field-grown tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and zucchini.”

Chad Kirby, fifth generation operator
Kirby Farms