Last week I had the pleasure of attending the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) annual conference in LaCrosse, WI. The event covered three days of seminars on all sorts of organic farming issues from growing to marketing to processing food. Organic agriculture including dairy, pork, chicken and beef producers as well as, organic seeds, grains, feed, fruits, vegetables and suppliers were all represented at this conference. I even attended a very interesting seminar on mushroom growing. Many different organizations involved in organic agriculture were also present SARA (Sustainable agriculture Research Association) is the group I worked under at the Small Farm Center in Davis, CA during graduate school.
I think about 2,600 people attended the conference and I heard it was one of the biggest yet. I was very impressed with the conference and the fact that they fed us all for three days with organic food that was delicious, even snacks! Everyone received a glass mug upon arriving which kept paper waste to a minimum. Meals were served on glass plates and metal utensils used so there was not a lot of waste generated.
It was interesting that we were one of the few college programs in attendance, and the only technical college I’m aware of. The intersection of landscaping and organics is such an emerging field. I came away with a new commitment for incorporating organic practices, food and permaculture into the urban landscape. One of the things I learned a lot about at the conference was the use of high tunnels or hoop houses for season extension. Traditional greenhouses are very energy intensive and in a climate like Wisconsin this is a big problem – especially to anyone wanting to start a business. Energy conservation in greenhouses has come a long way and alternative energy to heat a greenhouse is making headway but still has a long way to go. Our greenhouses will have geothermal heat installed soon. We are experimenting in retrofitting an existing greenhouse for under the bench geothermal heat.
In the meantime I’m looking at high tunnels which are basically unheated plastic covered hoop houses. There are lots of different versions of this idea. I’ll try to explain the basics. Once the hoop house is constructed, the soil is amended and cool season veggies such as spinach can be planted in the fall – Aug/Sept and harvested until about November. The same idea applies to col season cut flowers like stock and larkspur. Some growers will cover the rows of plants inside the hoop with an additional layer of remay to keep the crop growing through the winter. Some growers are using the old cold frame technique of applying a layer of partially decomoposed compost on the beds before planting the spinach. The compost produces heat as it decomposes which heats the beds. We saw this technique last year at Growing Power in Milwaukee. We saw a good looking spinach crop in mid March but not sure if theywere able to harvest this all winter. The main idea being how to keep the greenhouse warm enough to grow greens without using any energy. In our climate this is pretty tough to do in the short cloudy days of December and Jan but the sun begins to shine again in March and heat builds up pretty good under plastic. My last ditch effort at the end of winter was to pull a sheet of plastic over a fall planted spinach patch and call it a cold frame. It actually worked and has resulted in some pretty healthy looking spinach uncovered March 6. I predict I’ll be picking it in about 2 weeks. Fall planted crops include carrots, kale and other cole crops. Flowers are also grown and the price for flowers is often a lot more than for food – larkspur, stock, snapdragons can be fall sown for April harvest.
Tomatoes and other warm season veggies can also be planted under plastic much earlier in spring – March so that their harvest is also much earlier than anyone else around . Tomato, pepper and squash seedlings planted in a hoop house in March will begin bearing in June. This early jump on the market gets better prices for the grower. Once July comes and field grown plants begin bearing the sides of the hoop house can be rolled up for ventilation and harvest can continue into late fall. Summer in Wiscsonsin can be pretty iffy and I remember far too many summers of cool, rainy weather (like last year!) that made growing tomatoes and warm season plants impossible. So growing in a hoop house all summer here would not be out of the question at all. Again using the hoop house to extend the summer allows veggies to be harvested long after frost has nipped everyone else. Tomatoes would need to be pulled out by Sept to plant spinach however. This rotation caused growers to invent the ‘moveable high tunnel’. This hoop house is built on a slider track or wheels so the whole thing can be rolled off to rest and prepare the soil and rotate crops. For example plant fall lettuce in the hoop house and grow until late March – spinach can survive outside by March so slide hoop house over adjoining space and plant tomatoes. Tomatoes grow until October – then slide back onto spianch planted in Sept. This allows for a 12 month a year growing rotation
Ventilation is the big issue here and on warm spring days it would be nice to have some power to open vents to let out the heat. There is a grower who built pipes under his beds and blows this excess hot air in the day under his planting beds to warm the soil at night.
It would also be nice to have an irrigation system. The hoop house will need to be watered even in the winter and who wants to drag houses through the snow. A simple drip tape is all that’s needed. But how to keep things from freezing up and bursting is my question
In the end it would be great to have a really simple system just to see what we can do with it and go from there. Right now I’m not sure we have the staff to mamage much more than that!
A great website about hoophouses or high tunnels