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 fieldhouses.
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
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 ventilation.
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 months.
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.
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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