Greenhouses, Hoophouses, and Hydroponics, OH MY!


Three Methods for Farmers on the Road to Maximizing Production

Farming has made tremendous strides and advancements since the pioneer days, when crops were at the mercy of Mother Nature and the ability of farmers and animals to handle the labor.

Today, such options as greenhouses, hoophouses (also known as high tunnels), and hydroponic farming offer businesses many forms of crop protection from the elements, time savers, reduction of fertilizer use, more crops on less land and dramatically reduced losses. In Florida, many of these options are being utilized to grow crops from citrus to strawberries, with plenty of advantages. Farmers say those benefits outweigh start-up costs for these methods.

Greenhouses

Phillip Rucks of Rucks Citrus Nursery, Inc. grows citrus trees in greenhouses, which makes his business the largest screened commercial nursery in the U.S.  He feels the advantages of this method are worth the cost.  The Frostproof grower says greenhouse growing eliminates many concerns and dangers that field-grown seedlings face—such as insect invasion and weather damage.

“The disadvantage to it is that they are more expensive than a field-grown tree,” Rucks explains. “There’s the structure to pay for, the containers to grow them in, the potting media, and you have to have them on a raised bench 18 inches off the ground–you’ve got all this extra overhead.”

According to the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) U.S. Department of Agriculture, Cooperative Extension Service, University of Florida, a greenhouse is built to maintain an environment that results in the profitable production of high quality crops, and must be tailored to the type of crop being produced. It must also provide for the efficient use of labor and machinery within the house. The most desirable location is influenced by land characteristics – elevation, topography, and drainage – and climatic factors such as temperature and wind.

The costs of greenhouse growing have tremendous benefits, Rucks says. “You can pick these trees up, and you can plant them six months from now. You can just put them in a barn if you need to.” Field grown trees, or “bare naked roots,” must be planted right away, he adds.

“There are several advantages to greenhouses.  Probably the biggest advantage is that you are growing in a controlled and safe environment, with some protection from cold weather freezes,” he observes. There are also government mandates to keep citrus greenhouses insect proof, he notes.

“Greenhouses offer better protection from disease and insects, and our houses never get below 55 degrees,” he reports. “This past winter it got down to 20 degrees one morning [outside].”

The intense operation of growing the fragile nursery trees from a baby seed runs much smoother in the protected environment, he says.  “All you’ve got to do is have one bad day and you can lose a million seedlings,” he has found in his experience with growing outdoors.

While a few years ago about 60 to 70 percent of citrus seedlings were grown outside, today the rate is 100 percent, he comments, because of the mandates for insect proof structures.  But if the end result means healthy trees and a happy customer, Rucks believes it is worth all the intricate steps leading up to that point.

Hoophouses

If a Florida farmer would like to investigate a non-traditional method and embark on a new path, they could always take the “high road” – with high tunnel farming.  Also known as hoophouses, high tunnels can lengthen a growing season and enable farmers to grow in a conservation-friendly manner, according to information provided by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), an agency of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). A high tunnel is a greenhouse-like structure made of ribs of plastic or metal pipe, covered with plastic sheeting. The tunnels are at least 6 feet tall, which modifies the climate inside to create more favorable growing conditions for vegetables and other specialty crops grown in the natural soil beneath it, according to the NRCS.  The NRCS set up a pilot project under the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative, for farmers to establish high tunnels, thus increasing the availability of locally grown produce.

As an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the NRCS helps people conserve, maintain, and improve natural resources and the environment. The NRCS provides financial assistance to qualified producers for the project through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the EQIP Organic Initiative.         Qualified participants may receive funding for one high tunnel that could cover as much as 5 percent of one acre, or approximately a 30 by 72 foot structure. “This pilot project is going to give us real-world information that farmers all over the country can use to decide if they want to add high tunnels to their operations,” says USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan in a statement. “We know that these fixtures can help producers extend their growing season and hopefully add to their bottom line.”  Applications are being accepted by continuous sign-up, and processed in batches.  To ensure that your application is processed for the fiscal year 2011, it must be submitted before the end of October 2010.

Easy to build, maintain and move, they can be used year-round in Florida, providing steady incomes to farmers – a significant advantage to owners of small farms, limited-resource farmers, and organic producers. There may also be advantages to Florida’s natural resources with high tunnel production, such as less fertilizer usage.

Edward J. Sheehan, district conservationist for the NRCS, summarizes that while there has been some interest expressed in high tunnels, he did do not personally know of any producer using them. “Most are using a more traditional greenhouse to grow some specialty crops or high value crops,” Sheehan explains. “The main advantage to a high tunnel is to extend the growing season or possibly start it early,” He adds. “This would promote locally grown crops to be available to the local markets for a longer time. It could also reduce transportation costs. Some of the disadvantages would be the cost of the tunnel and the labor to set it up.”  However, EQIP assistance is available to help farmers establish a high tunnel.  For more information, contact your local NRCS office or visit the following internet sites:

www.fl.nrcs.usda.gov

http://www.fl.nrcs.usda.gov/contact/index.html

Hydroponics

There’s more than one way to make the most of acreage and grow crops, and farmers who have invested in hydroponics systems can certainly attest to the advantages.

Systems such as Verti-Gro, (www.vertigro.com) and Hydro-Stacker  (www.hydrostacker.com) involve considerable start-up costs. But the benefits in the end go far beyond recouping the initial investment, according to Dover farmer Gary Parke, whose enthusiastic testimony of Hydro-Stacker is proven only by his evident success with the system.

The Parke Family HydroFarms operation (www.parkehydro.com) grows about 50 items, he points out, and offers a “pick your own” farm, as well as selling fresh produce at several local farmer’s markets. A third generation farmer who runs the business with his wife, Terri, Parke attests that the condensed system of literally stacking plants has far exceeded their expectations. In short, compared to traditional farming, the system provides the ability to grow a lot more plants that are higher producing in a lot less space, with less fertilizer, less manpower, and far fewer losses. The seasons last longer, too.  So what’s not to like?

Even though the summer months are difficult for Florida farmers while the extreme heat takes its toll, Parke says that the other nine months of the year are tremendously more rewarding with his hydro system. “There are pros and cons with it, and a lot more pros than cons, although one con could be the one that knocks you out,” he admits.  For farmers who don’t have resources to get started, the cost could be a deal-breaker.  But Parke says the hefty investment has paid for itself over and over.

“Look at it this way; a McDonald’s franchise might cost what, about a million dollars? But it probably has a 93 percent success rate,” he speculates. “It may cost a lot, but you get your money back.”

Hydro-Stacker has a very good success rate, and it is very good for farmers,” he says. “It is kind of like having a better tractor—it’s stronger, basically.”

The agony of losing plants is dramatically reduced, too, he points out. “I have probably 2,700 planters out in my field, and maybe I’ve lost 50 or 60 over the last six years. In my opinion, that’s very low. It’s like with anything, eventually I’m going to get a flat tire.”  It seems however, that these “flat tires” as Parke metaphorically puts it, has not slowed down his success.  The table below provides statistics of his experience with traditional crops versus the Hydro-Stacker system, and gives one example of the many ways that crop production can be maximized.

CREDITS

story by MARY TOOTHMAN

photo by CAITLIN HALL