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Increasingly, NY growers are considering high tunnels as means to extend their season, or capture new markets with niche products.  A project by Cornell University hopes to arm growers with production and economic data related to growing in high tunnels.
Increasingly, NY growers are considering high tunnels as means to extend their season, or capture new markets with niche products. A project by Cornell University hopes to arm growers with production and economic data related to growing in high tunnels.
High tunnels extend growing season, markets for New York growers
8/28/2009

The opportunity to extend New York’s growing season, and produce crops that are bigger, better looking and higher yielding has many growers considering high tunnels.

``Living in the northeast, we have a lot of weather that is not good for growing crops.  The more high tunnels I can put up, the more I will,’’ said Zaid Kurdieh, owner of Norwich Meadows Farm, in Norwich, NY.
With more than four acres of vegetables and fruit under plastic, Norwich Meadows is one of the biggest high tunnel operations in the state.

A high tunnel is a relatively low-tech, ribbed structure covered in clear plastic.  Plants grow in the ground, and enjoy the benefits of naturally-trapped heat, and less stress from wind, rain, and some pests.  Most high tunnels rely solely on the sun’s rays as a heat source, and most models can be moved to different ground.

High tunnels are gaining popularity with growers seeking a lower-cost alternative to greenhouses, and the chance to grow crops earlier, and later, in the season.  Some New York growers report they can harvest vegetables nine months of the year in a high tunnel system.

For the past few years, Cornell University has been conducting on-farm research trials to be able to make recommendations about production practices, crops, varieties, pest management, economics, and more.  An outreach campaign to share information with farmers includes field days, a website, blog, farm visits by Cooperative Extension educators, and more.

These research and outreach efforts are supported by grant funds from the New York Farm Viability Institute, a farmer-led nonprofit organization that promotes projects that help farmers improve profitability. The Institute received funds from the New York State legislature and Department of Agriculture and Markets.

In late July, the project, led by Cornell horticulture professor Dr. Chris Wien, hosted a field day at Norwich Meadows.  More than 60 people from around the state turned out.

``A cool, wet season is a good argument for high tunnels, especially if you are growing warm-season crops – tomatoes, eggplants, and so on,’’ said Judson Reid, a vegetable specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension.

The chance to increase yields, or attract premium prices for, say, fresh and local lettuce in April, or strawberries in September, has attracted the interest of numerous growers and start-up farmers.  But, the startup costs make some growers wary of additional expenses.

``Do you have a market that will pay for a premium product?  That is the market you want to find,’’ said Harry Edwards, a representative from Haygrove Tunnels.  The manufacturer’s high tunnels start at a 28’ x 200’ model that sells for $7,200 and go up from there, to high tunnels that cover several acres of ground.

Customers often find they need a bigger high tunnel quicker than they anticipated, Edwards said.

In addition to lining up a market for crops, Edwards advised high tunnel growers to raise crops that don’t ship well, so New York farmers don’t have to compete with grocery store prices.  Flowers and berries are good choices, he said.
At Norwich Meadows, taste and quality drive the choices about what the farm grows and sells.

``We have items nobody else has,’’ Kurdieh said.  ``It may be a cucumber, but it is a variety and a taste no one else has.  People eat with their eyes, so we have a nice-looking display.

``The quality of your product speaks for itself.’’

Norwich Meadows sells its produce through several community-supported-agriculture programs and farmers markets, primarily in New York City.  Although the majority of produce is sold fresh, Norwich Meadows has been experimenting with selling jarred tomato sauce and jarred pickled vegetables.

``High tunnels are great, if you can manage them,’’ Kurdieh said.  ``Market is the first thing you need to think about.  High tunnels are not cheap.  … They require management.  You can’t treat them like you are growing outdoors.’’

Kurdieh started farming fulltime in 2000.  Since 2003, he has put up more than 30 high tunnels on his farm.  To educate himself, he visited farms in Egypt, where high tunnel production is more common, and, more advanced.  Anyone thinking of putting up a high tunnel should visit with other farmers already in high tunnel production, and check with the Cooperative Extension service, books and the internet for information, Kurdieh recommended.  

``Read up. There is a lot of information out there,’’ he advised.

Cornell University’s horticulture department has a website devoted to high tunnels, including information about choosing a structure, agronomics of growing in high tunnels, ongoing on-farm trials related to yield, variety, and pest control, and more. The site includes downloadable spreadsheets for record keeping and cost-analysis by crop.

Dr. Wien recently released the results of a study of the net income per square foot of various crops grown in high tunnels in New York.  Raspberries netted $1.51, while cucumbers cost a grower 53 cents.  As with any production system, results will vary by farm.  In the study, one grower netted 57 cents per square foot on tomatoes, and a peer netted $1.44 per square foot with tomatoes.

Kurdieh reported his yields increased by four times for many crops.  Depending on yield and market price, tomatoes may translate to $30,000-$50,000 per acre, he said.  But, he added, the need to rotate crops as well as provide customers with a diverse mix of products means not all fruits and vegetables grown are so profitable.  Artichokes, for example, gross around $8,000 per acre, he said.

On the web:
Norwich Meadows, www.norwichmeadowsfarm.com  
Cornell University, High Tunnels, www.hort.cornell.edu/hightunnel/  
Cornell High Tunnel Blog, http://blogs.cornell.edu/hightunnels/

New York Farm Viability Institute, www.nyfvi.org  
 
-          By Rebecca Schuelke Staehr, NYFVI communication specialist
 
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Contact: Rebecca Schuelke Staehr, NYFVI communication specialist
                T: (315) 453-3823 extension 103
                E: rschuelke@nyfvi.org  
   

Cprnell vegetable specialist Judson Reid and farmer Zaid Kurdieh described high tunnel production to a group of 60 at a high tunnel field day in July 2009  at Kurdieh`s farm Norwich Meadows in Chenango County, NY
Cprnell vegetable specialist Judson Reid and farmer Zaid Kurdieh described high tunnel production to a group of 60 at a high tunnel field day in July 2009 at Kurdieh`s farm Norwich Meadows in Chenango County, NY
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