Posted MAY 30, 2003: When we started farming
in 1988 here in Argyle, New York, we realized that having
produce in early May, when the farmers’ markets opened,
would be beneficial for many reasons. Farming is our full-time
living and, after a long winter with no income, May sales
could provide an important boost to our finances. A full display
of fresh, May produce would certainly draw the customers to
our table and make them loyal buyers for the entire season.
Our early crops
Many different vegetables can benefit from fieldhouse protection.
We trialed lettuce, spinach, peppers, tomatoes, beets, swiss
chard, basil, and interplanted radishes and scallions. The
vegetables we choose to grow early are usually in high demand
and are high value crops. They're also crops we would not
be able to have at that time of year if it weren't for the
Lettuce is seeded weekly in 200-cell speedling trays in the
greenhouse starting in February. Then in March, after they
have grown for five weeks in the greenhouse, we transplant
600 lettuce plants each week for three consecutive weeks into
one fieldhouse. Planting them 12 inches between rows and eight
inches in row gives us a total of 1,800 early, marketable
heads of lettuce (12 rows in each house). We sell the lettuce
for $1.75 at our retail markets. This one fieldhouse provides
us with about $3,100 in the month of May.
Similarly, we start spinach in the greenhouse in late February
in four 200-cell speedling trays. Spinach is seeded every
week with three seeds per cell. We generally use the varieties
'Space' and 'Tyee', but several other varieties are trialed
every year. Our experience has shown that 'Tyee' works best
as a transplant, and 'Space' is best for direct seeding in
the ground. After the seeds have germinated (five to seven
days), we grow them on in the greenhouse for another four
weeks. They are then hand-transplanted into fieldhouses with
a six-inch spacing between plants and 12 inches between rows.
||"We plant two fieldhouses with
spinach over a four-week period...Each fieldhouse produces
a crop valued at about $3,200 if we pick leaves only and
sell them at $6 per pound at our farmers markets. This
extrapolates out to over $100,000 per acre!"
We plant two fieldhouses with spinach over a four-week period
and each crop is ready to start harvesting about four to five
weeks after transplanting. We pick the larger leaves only
and each planting can be re-picked three to five times about
one week apart. Each fieldhouse produces a crop valued at
about $3,200 if we pick leaves only and sell them at $6 per
pound at our farmers markets. This extrapolates out to over
$100,000 per acre! Our timing of transplanting crops into
the fieldhouses and out in the fields provides a continuous
supply throughout the year.
For several years, we interplanted scallions or radishes
between the rows of spinach when the spinach was harvested
as a plant (the whole plant was taken). Since the spinach
is planted in rows 12 inches on center, the addition of radishes
made all rows six inches on center. Those trials were successful
for the most part, however, the timing is critical so that
the spinach does not overcrowd the radishes.
The lettuce and spinach in the fieldhouses are rowcovered
with P-19 Agribon in the early part of the season when temperatures
are low. The inside temperatures are monitored daily, and
before temperatures reach 70°F inside, the plastic on
the side with the boards (that has been secured all winter)
is pulled out of the ground and can then be rolled up for
Basil is another very lucative crop when extending the season
in the spring. Basil is seeded in the greenhouse in early
to mid-March and grown in two-inch soil blocks. We then transplant
them into a fieldhouse the first week of May and utilize rowcovers
to protect them on cold nights. Zip houses over the basil
also protect them well and grow them fast inside the fieldhouses.
Basil will be ready to cut for fresh bunches soon after transplanting
or even at transplanting time, and can be harvested for many
up the water: A simple drip irrigation
system makes watering quick and easy--even if you
have to use one hose for many houses.
We use a very simple irrigation system for the fieldhouses
which consists of drop nozzles mounted on one main overhead
plastic pipe attached to the ridgepole. Drip irrigation is
another simple and effective system. A hose can be hooked
up to a header pipe with irrigation lines running off of it.
Any hose system can use quick disconnects (like ours) if many
houses are watered with the same hose to save time. Beware:
cultivation is more difficult when using drip irrigation.
We cultivate the lettuce and spinach crops once with Dutch
push-hoes, and side-dress with soybean meal for nitrogen if
needed at cultivation.
In addition to using these fieldhouses for growing early
crops, we also use these structures for various other tasks.
The fieldhouses have acted as an overflow/hardening off area
for transplants which are started in our greenhouse in the
spring (for example: perennials, onions, and greens that are
cold tolerant all get transferred to the fieldhouses before
going out in the field). During the winter, our ducks and
laying hens live in one of the metal-piped fieldhouses.
The metal-hooped fieldhouses not being inhabited by our ducks
and hens in the winter months are used for growing. Hardy
greens that are planted in early fall, such as spinach, mache,
kale, and lettuce, can be harvested all winter.
Around September 1st, we seed lettuce and spinach in the
speedling trays and grow them for four weeks in the greenhouse.
The plants are then transplanted onto the field around October
1st where we have marked out the location for the fieldhouse.
The actual fieldhouse will be constructed over the plants
around November 1st. If there is time, the framework of the
house can be put up at or before planting time. It is important
not to put the plastic on too early since the plants lack
cold-tolerance if they are too big going into winter.
The temperature in the fall can vary quite a bit, therefore
planting in two successions one-week apart takes away some
of the risk. We place wire hoops over the lettuce, then all
greens are covered with two layers of rowcover. Only the larger
outer leaves are harvested, so the plants can be re-picked
all winter. They are usually ready for harvest in December
and can be cut when the temperature is above 32°F outside,
or if the sun is shining.
dreaming of a green winter: Rows of kale,
mache, lettuce and spinach in the winter fieldhouse.
Lettuce doesn't usually survive the winter depending on the
severity of the whether so we plant very little. Mache is
a very hardy winter green that can be direct seeded into the
fieldhouse area around September 1st, and kale we’ve
enjoyed seeded approximately August 1st and put in as a transplant.
Aphids can be a problem in late winter, but they usually don't
appear until March when we are tilling everything under to
ready the ground for the spring crop.
Winter growing provides our family and friends with good,
organic, fresh greens all winter long. Some of our dedicated
customers come on a self-serve basis since they enjoy the
fresh greens in the dead of winter, and our vegetables in
the root cellar (potatoes, carrots, beets, onions, etc.) also
add to their selection.
But winter is an important family time for us and a time
to rest, so we do not push to sell a lot of produce over the
winter. The winter sales we do have provide us with a modest
income, and if we ever needed more income, we certainly know
how to make a thriving business of winter growing. In addition
to providing winter food, the fieldhouses force us to get
a jump on the early spring growing. With the structures up
before the snow, the ground is ready to plant in March for
the new spring crops.
||"Even growing those less cold-hardy
crops, in addition to our usual line-up, shows us great
returns. One year we grew lettuce and then interplanted
tomatoes; those two crops grossed $5,300."
These fieldhouses have given us a great return over the years,
especially since the structures are used over and over again.
They are usually unheated except when planted to crops such
as tomatoes and peppers. We have been known to use a portable,
propane-fired heater when the temperature drops below 40°F.
Even growing those less cold-hardy crops, in addition to our
usual line-up, shows us great returns. One year we grew lettuce
and then interplanted tomatoes; those two crops grossed $5,300.
(Note: If tomatoes are grown in either type fieldhouse, some
means to get adequate pollination must be used, such as rolling
up the plastic on both sides or hand pollinating.)
Season extension on our farm has been a very lucrative addition
that we will continue to improve upon and experiment with.
However, all this time and energy spent on season extension
would not be worthwhile if we didn’t know the cost/benefit
of these systems. We utilize simple
but critical record-keeping to determine what crops give
us the biggest and fastest return in these fieldhouses. All
this leads to a great diverse supply of produce for May and
November, happy customers and higher profits.
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