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Greenhouse Tomatoes in a New York High Tunnel

The Tomato Magazine
June 2005

By Judson Reid and Helene Dillard

In New York State’s Finger Lakes region, greenhouse tomato production has increased dramatically over the last five years. Most of this growth is the result of an influx of Mennonite and Amish growers seeking alternative horticultural production methods. However, heating a greenhouse through a New York winter requires high-energy input and can be cost prohibitive. An alternative to a fully heated greenhouse is the hoop house or high tunnel. Unlike greenhouses, these structures have no supplemental heat or automated ventilation. High tunnels can be moved, which offers an advantage for rotating into fresh soil for tomato culture, to avoid pest and disease build-up, as well as nutrient depletion.

No Electricity Required
The high tunnel is an appropriate fit for Mennonite and Amish growers. There is no electricity required, in fact no automation at all. Temperature manipulation and ventilation are all done manually, which capitalizes on the abundant labor available on these farms. High tunnels also appear to decrease the need for fungicide applications when compared to field grown tomatoes.

Until this trial determinant, field varieties were grown in high tunnels. Working with cooperating grower Howard Hoover, we decided to investigate if greenhouse varieties would perform better than determinate field types in an unheated high tunnel at a Penn Yan, NY farm. We submitted a proposal to the USDA’s Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (NE-SARE), and received approval. The projects goals were to:

   • Compare 4 tomato varieties in an unheated high tunnel by measuring yield in total weight, total number of fruit, and mean fruit weight.
   • Compare vertical to horizontal trellising.
   • Observe disease and insect pest trends in the high tunnel, and manage them in a sustainable manner.
   • Share our information with other growers in the region.

Performed Well in Unheated High Tunnels
The results were exciting. We found that indeterminate varieties that had previously only been grown in heated greenhouses would perform well in an unheated high tunnel. The indeterminate varieties yielded more consistently over time than the determinate variety in our trial. This may be an advantage or disadvantage depending on market windows. If a grower prefers a heavy flush of fruit prior to availability of field grown tomatoes, the determinate variety may be preferable. Alternatively if the grower desires a long, sustained harvest, the indeterminate types may be superior.

The high tunnel may decrease pesticide inputs. For example, no pesticides were used in this trial. Minor levels of foliar diseases occurred in the high tunnel, but none approached an economic threshold. An interesting development was widespread late blight (Phytophthora infestans) in field grown tomatoes throughout the region. The disease was present in the farmer’s home garden 30 feet from the high tunnel, yet no late blight was observed within the tunnel.

The warm, dry environment is also great for working together with family. When it is raining outside and fieldwork has to be put on hold, children and parents can be together in the hoop house to pull weeds, trellis, prune and harvest. Tomato fruit maturity in high tunnels appears to coincide well with profitable price windows at produce auctions found among Mennonite and Amish communities.

Our high tunnel tomato trial was a success, not only because our data showed clear differences between varieties, but also because we were able to share this information with other greenhouse tomato growers throughout the Finger Lakes. At a high tunnel twilight meeting convened in early August, over 40 tomato growers from the region observed our treatments and yields.

The information above is from only one year of data. Fortunately NE-SARE has funded the project for a second year to include three high tunnels. Included in the 2005 trial will be a colored bell pepper trial in which biological disease control strategies will be examined, and a certified organic high tunnel will be studied where heirloom tomatoes are produced.

Editor’s Note: Judson Reid is an area vegetable specialist with the Cornell Cooperative Extension, Penn Yan, N.Y. He can be reached at jer11@cornell.edu; Helene Dillard is a professor, Department of Plant Pathology, and director, Cornell Cooperative Extension, NYSAES, Cornell University, Geneva, N.Y.

© 2005 Columbia Publishing

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