Adding a step is almost never saving a step, and saving a step is often adding a step. When a new idea comes along, I’m skeptical. Since I grow flowers so I don’t have to have a job I don’t like, I have to make money, so any technique or technology has to make my life easier and more profitable. Being “cool”, being “innovative”, being “clever”, just isn’t enough for me, I want something to work better, operate more cheaply, make things simpler. Hence, a lot of techniques other growers utilize fall away for me, because one more thing for our farm, where we work hard and leanly, is one too many more things—we’ve maxed out in regards to our ability to do more and still enjoy life. We don’t mind being exhausted at the end of the day—in fact, when exhaustion hits me and my body warns me it’s going to fail (tear, break, collapse) I usually work another fifteen minutes, knowing that’s the end of the tank, the fumes.
Admittedly, I have a knee-jerk bias against “new” techniques, methods, machines and equipment of all sorts. You live long enough and the list of things that were supposed to work but which didn’t, the things promised as making things easier that instead made them more complicated, grows so much longer than the list of the things that did work, were better, that you just start saying no the minute you see the next item coming down the new-and-better chute—I hold up the cross and wear the garlic, just like when I see the missionaries heading down my sidewalk. As you age, you really have to train yourself to remain open to the new, just as when you’re young it’s a tough go to imagine anything that already is not being old and outdated.
A few of the things we don’t do on our farm, sometimes because we don’t believe they work, sometimes because we’re sure they won’t work on our scale, and sometimes because they don’t quite make the cut in terms of work-saving or costs. Others may find any of these doable on their farm, at their scale, in their scheme, and many do.
Occultation. Without having tried “occultation”, I dismiss it as unworkable on a multi-acre farm. How much tarp can I afford to cover my land, how many hours to put it down, take it back up, how much area to store it—and how do I even know it works? I do know it doesn’t work in situations where rhizomatous plants grow, because those species send out roots to continue their existence, roots that return to the smothered area once tarps are removed. And, unless you practice no-till along with occultation, disturbing the soil will bring up more seeds to the surface to replace those killed by the heat of a smothering tarp.
No-till. Without trying no-till farming I’m skeptical, again, as to its efficacy on the scale we operate. We definitely believe in low-till—why do more than you need to?—but in our native soil that’s between 1 and 2 percent organic matter, the cost of necessary soil amendments to make planting possible without tilling exceeds the national debt. A case of great in theory, not so great in practice if I can’t make a living. In our arid climate, my extension agent tells me, there is no biodegrading going on in the winter or even on summer nights, when our temperatures get too cold for natural composting to occur, so leaving plant matter as it is, without turning it into the soil, makes for a slow process. Having witnessed how slowly sunflowers and sorghum deteriorate, I believe him. How does one no-till in such a situation without bringing in compost? And the compost comes from any distance, requires factory-style production, is the carbon footprint from that action not as detrimental to the environment as tilling? And, do the extra hours of applying compost and other techniques make up for the hours saved by not weeding?
Low tunnels. Before I launch into why we DON’T use low tunnels, let me give you a couple links to some good advice should you want to build your own:
The Bare Mountain videos on YouTube, while tedious, really display the best way to make low tunnels—we’ve seen them in person and were very impressed. They’ve made them easy to operate, sturdier than the rinky-dink structures you might try to make if you’re like me, and they actually get TIGHTER in the wind, rather than loosening up as most tunnels do. If you’re handy (I’m not), you can make a topnotch structure using their techniques—you really can’t do any better. Pay attention, because with low tunnels, more than any other infrastructure on the farm, you get what you pay for: if you want to cut corners, weather, be it as snow, rain or wind, will find those missed corners, and if you’re meticulous about building them, you’ll be rewarded with a sense of security and a smugness that your tunnels withstood that sudden snow onslaught where your competitors’ didn’t.
We don’t use low tunnels. Neither the narrow, single or double row structures (3-4 foot wide) nor those you can stand in (various widths 10-12 foot). Thought about it. Thought about it again. And again. It’s enticing, expanding the season when you only have 120 frost-free days. But there were too many strikes against them and we never adopted their use. Subjectively, we find even the larger ones too claustrophobic and tight to work in—our twenty foot wide tunnels can be stifling, space-wise, unless you’re a smaller person (6 foot tall here)—and the constant attention needed for the smaller ones is just too annoying (having to work around them when weeding, harvesting, putting them up and taking them down). Just covering and uncovering our small garden patch of tomatoes taught us we didn’t have the stomach or manpower needed to roll down and secure plastic or other covering when it got cold (always a windy situation, at dusk), nor to raise it as it got sunny and hot so plants wouldn’t fry, Even after a couple years of having a rollup hoophouse, I gave up trying to keep up with the up and down business required to take advantage of the sun and protect from the cold—the weather changes so rapidly here that I was out rolling the sides up and down three and four times a day, each time doing damage, however minuscule, to the plastic, so now we leave the sides up except on extremely cold nights.
These are just personal preferences, but objectively a couple things hold us back from using low tunnels. Our marketing season ends just after Labor Day, when our resort customers head back to real lives, so we discovered early on in our careers that extending the autumn end of the year was just a waste of time. Using low tunnels to protect from that one hard frost, a frost that prevents a grower from taking advantage of Indian summers that might last several weeks, doesn’t help us at all, because even if we had product we couldn’t sell it.
But on the front end of our sales season, it’s a different story. Our big push starts just after Memorial Day, though we have some clientele as early as March—mostly supermarkets that buy our tulips—so tunnels would be a great boon to start early crops to hit the June bride season, when we generally have only peonies, a few perennials, and whatever we can scare up from our two greenhouses. A few extra weeks of heat and we could probably knock up our June sales by a third or even a half.
Unfortunately, our climate has severe frosts even into mid-May—it’s pretty common to see low twenties even then, and while low tunnels can protect some hardier species at those temperatures, the narrower tunnels (3 feet) won’t give necessary help to the more tender annuals—lilies and sunflowers come to mind, a couple crops that take cool weather just fine but which even a light frost will ruin. A second feature of our climate: about one in ten years we get a heavy snow storm in mid-April, a foot or more of wet snow that is just too much for low tunnels to bear unless you’re willing to give constant vigilance—we’re not, since we generally are too exhausted by noon to consider one more thing to do.
The cost of low tunnels is generally considered to be about half that of space under unheated rollup hoophouse, so while they’re cheaper, we figure we just as well have something secure, easy to manage, that doesn’t require constant attention—and pay the extra for larger, roomier structures. I put low tunnels in a category with CoolBots—both are cheaper than their alternatives, but neither have any recoverable cost, meaning they have no value as resale. It’s not really fair to compare the alternatives costwise without comparing the value you might get out of them should you either fail, enlarge the operation, or choose to go a different route. Once you compare costs this way, the difference between the two might be negligible, but you gain reliability with “normal” refrigeration units or properly designed hoophouse structures that withstand wind and snowload—and the more expensive versions keep some value, in our case as much or more than half their original costs.
Low tunnels work best for those who don’t own their land, since they can be dismantled and moved, or for those with hilly acreages where more standard houses can’t be built unless excavation is undertaken. They can be built as rudimentarily as you want—two pieces of rebar with an old piece of hose across the top to support a chintzy covering—or as sturdily as you wish: conduit or PVC shaped to fit your rows, with pointed “roofs” being better at shedding snow that rounded ones. You can use light row cover fabric, which only gains a couple degrees but can also provide shade or protection against insects, heavy fabric, thin plastic, thick plastic, and slotted plastic that breathes—a necessary attribute if you don’t intend to babysit the tunnel, because temperatures raise very quickly under plastic and can easily ruin crops in an hour or less.
Pitfalls of the low tunnel: increased difficulty in weeding; limited to shorter species; worries about contact of fabric on blooms on frosty nights that mar the flowers; drip tape movement from heat/cold changes.
Pluses include: the obvious extra days of heat; protection from hail damage (we did trial some heavy agribon on some sunflowers to bring them early, and a hailstorm that destroyed most of the May perennials didn’t break the fabric in a single place); protects from sun scorch (if you have dewy mornings, then sudden sunlight that makes white flowers brown, using low tunnels with agribon protects from that damage); protection from wind damage; shade (from agribon) lengthens stems, particularly in high light areas.
Questions to ask yourself: do you have a market for early or late blooms? Do you have market for species normally you can’t grow? Will you be around to constantly monitor temperatures, raise and lower? Do you have help to secure during wind, particularly if you choose to go the flimsy route? Do you have storage space for covers and stakes, the energy and time to take them down and put them up?
In terms of holding covering material down, growers use different methods. Some use sandbags—that would be a reason for me NOT to use tunnels, some use heavy water-filled buckets or larger poly piping filled with water, some use rocks, but we, on the rare times we’ve covered with fabric, shoveled soil along the edges since it gwear what you gain in ease.
Species we would grow:
Those for season extension in spring: ranunculus, anemone, dianthus, larkspur, nigella, lisianthus, snaps, orlaya, Bupleurum, Bells of Ireland,
Those for season ext. in fall: leucantha sage, tuberose, kale, late umbel producers like parsley and fennel, celosia, mums, snaps gomphrena, lisianthus;
Those for flower protection: Hellebore, white flowers that damage from dew/sun combination, Bleeding Hearts, Red Hot Pokers, True Hyacinths (all these have buds easily damaged by hard, early frosts);
Those species needing longer stems (agribon, not plastic, helps); varies according to climate.
Perennials that continually bloom which you want to force early, like Veronica;
Bulb crops: tulips, ornithogalums (look closely at culture sheets, as some of these have narrow growing windows).
Well, that’s basically a synopsis of a presentation I gave at the Nevada Small Farms Conference—you saved your entry fee, but you missed staying in a casino (‘nuff said about that!)