High tunnel value proven in High Plains vegetable production

Hail decimates outside AgriLife Research tomato, pepper crop

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

AMARILLO – High tunnels at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research station near Bushland have made a difference between having a vegetable crop and not having one.

Tomatoes inside high tunnels at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research station near Bushland are almost ready for market. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Kay Ledbetter)

“Texas A&M AgriLife Research is really trying to reinvigorate their vegetable program, putting extra effort into production across the state,” said Dr. Charlie Rush, AgriLife Research plant pathologist in Amarillo.

Rush’s vegetable research under a Texas Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Block Grant began 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.

While the Panhandle had vegetable production in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, there has not been any major commercial production for some time, he said.

“But it is still a good area to grow vegetables and recently there has been a renewed interest in having locally grown, high-quality vegetables in local markets,” Rush said.

Large tomatoes ripen on vines inside high tunnels. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Kay Ledbetter)

This year might be a good indication of why some of the vegetable market left the area. The vegetable production field near Bushland was hit by a hail storm July 2 and “it pretty well wiped out all the vegetables we had outside,” he said.

“But inside our high tunnels at the same location where we are comparing production both in the open field and under the high tunnels using similar irrigation technology, the plants are thriving.”

Rush said both inside and out, the growing conditions are the same with plastic row covers, surface drip irrigation and five different tomato cultivars for comparison. The only difference is the high tunnels.

Pea- to golf ball-size hail stripped tomato and pepper plants planted at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research farm near Bushland. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Kay Ledbetter)

“You never really know what’s going to happen,” he said. “Last year we had good production without a whole lot of major problems comparing inside and outside. I think the outside actually ended up yielding slightly more produce, but the overall marketability was significantly less than what we were able to produce under the high tunnels last year.”

This year has been totally different, Rush said.

“We planted the last week of April,” he said. “The last freeze date in the Panhandle is April 15, so we waited until the last week of April to plant the vegetables in the field and those in the high tunnels.

Pepper plants that had started setting fruit were wiped out by hail July 2. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Kay Ledbetter)

“Then the first week of May we had a freak snowstorm and it just wiped us out in the field. Fortunately, we had some extra seed from the breeders and we replanted very quickly and we were able to get everything back up and looking good by early June. Then we had this hailstorm come in on July 2 and again we are wiped out outside.”

But the tomatoes under the high tunnels have vines already producing quality tomatoes ready for market, Rush said.

“We already knew from last year we were able to get good quality produce in the high tunnels,” he said. “The overall marketable yields were higher in the tunnels because of the quality. And now we see this additional benefit of this investment.”

Rush said they did have trouble with wind damage to the high tunnels back during the winter, but they reinforced the doors and sides to keep it from blowing and billowing in the wind and haven’t had any more problems with high winds in the last few months. Also, he said, the hail did not cause any tearing or shredding of the outside skin.

“We’ve made some great advances in our ability to grow vegetables here at the center,” Rush said. “In the last year we’ve improved the infrastructure for irrigation and we also have the equipment to lay plastic mulch, which is going to be a tremendous water saver.”

The program is concentrating primarily on tomatoes and peppers but also will include some melon research. The study includes comparing tomatoes and peppers grown on and off plastic mulch, as well as inside and outside the high tunnels.

“There’s no question at least this year having the high tunnels certainly has paid off twice in this one season,” Rush said.

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