NORWICH, NY – Anyone who has grown vegetables in the Northeast can tell you the troubles of the short growing season coupled with years of insect pests or crops wiped out by blights. While conventional growing operations still work, there might be a better way.
Zaid Kurdieh might have found a way to circumnavigate these problems by growing almost everything in high tunnels. Kurdieh, voted NOFA-NY Farmer of the Year, is the managing partner at Norwich Meadows Farm, with Anton Burkett as the farm manager. It is a 250-acre NOFA-NY Certified Organic fruit and vegetable farm with over 200 high tunnels in operation, providing for farmers market, CSAs, restaurants and wholesalers from New York City to southwest New York. Growing in high tunnels carries a higher initial cost but the increased production, ability to grow longer and have better control over the conditions that each plant receives can more than cover this cost.
NOFA-NY (Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York) recently hosted a field day at Norwich Meadows Farm for other growers to get an inside look at the operation and ask questions about the pros and cons of high tunnel farming.
One issue with growing in high tunnels is that the plants get no natural rain water under the plastic – everything needs to be irrigated. Norwich Meadows Farm uses drip irrigation sourced from the Chenango River to keep the plants watered. “Dry farming is a no for us,” said Kurdieh as he pointed out that all three of his locations have direct access to rivers or streams. Irrigating everything allows for better control over different crops’ water needs.
Weed management is done by hand early in the season until the plants have grown enough to shade out their competitors. Being grown directly in the ground of the high tunnels, the soil nutrients are important. “We do a lot of soil testing,” said Kurdieh, “and we spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to best feed our plants.”
Snow and wind are the bane of high tunnels and as such need to be dealt with. Here are two different ways in which to combat the snows of the Northeast. Remove the snow as it comes (which is backbreaking and tied to the snow’s schedule) and/or support the metal structures to withstand the extra weight. Norwich Meadows Farm has tried both. He recalled about eight or nine years ago when he and two other people would go in the high tunnels to shake off the snow “and it just about killed me,” said Kurdieh about the issues with heavy snows and high tunnels.
Norwich Meadows Farm now supports the greenhouses with 2x4s placed at every other hoop to prevent collapse. They plan to add steel laterals all the way down the greenhouses to provide more structural support.
Another issue faced with high tunnels is the plastic being damaged in high winds. There is no remedy for the high winds other than making sure your greenhouses are built away from the worst winds and positioned properly. Kurdieh said that the greenhouses have held up in 60 mph sustained winds but there will be damage to the plastic coverings. The plastic covers last from three to five years.
Having the separate high tunnels also allows for easier management of insect and blight problems and remedies by slowing the spread as well as adding one more barrier between pests and the crops.
While the weather, insects and blights are problems for all growers, moving production into high tunnels allows a longer growing season and a level of control and consistency over plants that is near impossible to attain growing outdoors.
For more information on how to become NOFA-NY organically certified or about upcoming events in your area, visit nofany.org.
by Michael Wren