Tomato production in AgriLife Research high tunnels underway

Second year building on lessons learned in the Panhandle

Writer: Kay Ledbetter, 806-677-5608, skledbetter@ag.tamu.edu
Contact: Dr. Charlie Rush, 806-354-5804, crush@ag.tamu.edu

AMARILLO – Winds whipped around at almost 25 mph, but the Texas A&M AgriLife Research plant pathology crew didn’t have to battle the blowing dirt as they sunk one tomato seedling after another into the soil inside one of four high tunnels.

The Texas A&M AgriLife Research plant pathology team plants tomatoes in the high tunnels near Bushland. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Kay Ledbetter)

With planting taking place a full two months earlier than last year’s replanting, the high tunnel tomato project led by Dr. Charlie Rush, AgriLife Research plant pathologist in Amarillo, is ready to learn some more lessons, and he has high hopes.

Rush began his research for the Texas Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Block Grant Program vegetable project in 2016. The project is aimed at high-value vegetable crop production under high tunnels, which are Quonset hut-type structures similar to greenhouses in appearance but lacking artificial heat.

“We are in the second year of planting tomatoes,” Rush said. “The project went pretty well last year, and we were able to get some good quality produce in the high tunnels.”

Dr. Kevin Crosby, an AgriLife Research tomato breeder in College Station, and another breeder with a private company in California each identified the best varieties for the project and provided seed for the study.

Those seeds were planted in a greenhouse and then transplanted in early May. Drip tape was installed to water the 20 plants of each line in each of the four tunnels, but Rush said the entire irrigation system had some issues last year that he hopes will be fixed this year.

Seedlings grown in the Texas A&M AgriLife Research greenhouse are transplanted into beds in the high tunnels. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Kay Ledbetter)

Some of the first year’s lessons learned included: rabbits like young seedling plants, so fencing was installed; extreme heat in the high tunnels caused a number of the newly planted seedlings to die, so the entire study had to be replanted on May 16; and finally, a high incidence of tomato spotted wilt in the transplants required the entire study to be replanted on June 30.

“We learned a tremendous amount last year, including an important lesson during the off-season. Right before Christmas we had a 70 mph wind that tore the cover off all four of the high tunnels. So this year we put in additional straps across the tunnels, put posts on the doors and installed other security measures to keep the billowing down. It helped secure the structure.”

In spite of the late planting, Rush said they were able to produce about 1,500 pounds of tomatoes in 2016, some of which he sold through United Grocery Markets in Amarillo in late October and early November.

He estimated, based on that limited production the first year, a high tunnel with six rows, about 240 plants, could produce almost 2,300 pounds of tomatoes. These could be sold for $1 to $3 per pound, depending on if they are sold to a retail grocery store or at a farmers market.

The Texas A&M AgriLife Research plant pathology crew get the first planting of tomatoes done on April 24. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Kay Ledbetter)

Things are running a little smoother this year, with the first seedlings planted on April 24 and the irrigation infrastructure is almost complete and will be tied in within a few weeks, Rush said.

This year, as was done last year, they will have a similar layout of plants outside the high tunnels, he said. The replicated plots will test the same tomato varieties and irrigation regimens as under the tunnels to determine the difference a high tunnel might make for commercial producers.

“What we found was the production in the high tunnels was better than that outside last year; the yields were certainly higher,” Rush said.

The project is being expanded this year through support provided by the Texas A&M AgriLife Research Vegetable Initiative. This program is supporting renewal of the Texas Vegetable Industry and research projects to identify the best tomato, pepper and melon cultivars for different growing regions conducted by AgriLife Research scientists in Amarillo, Uvalde, Weslaco and College Station.

“This year we will be focusing on the same cultivars we planted last year to see if we can see the same quality and yield differences,” he said. “We also hope we can initiate some different irrigation treatments as we originally planned in this study.”

Rush said he hopes to be able to post the progress of the vegetables in the high tunnels and outside plots on his webpage, http://bit.ly/2q4uh62, about every two weeks so anyone interested can follow the program and ask questions along the way.

“We want to let people follow along and see how everything is progressing during the season, and we will be able to tell you about any issues and updates that are happening at the time,” he said. “We are looking forward to the season.”

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