For four years now (2016, 2018, 2020 and 2023), representatives from the universities of Maine (UMaine), New Hampshire (UNH) and Vermont (UVM) have hosted the High Tunnel Production Conference for high tunnel growers in New England and the Northeast at large to attend. The 2023 conference at the beginning of December was a two-day event that took place in West Lebanon, NH, full of educational sessions from soil steaming to construction issues in high tunnels. It began with a tour at Spring Ledge Farm in New Loudon, NH.

Spring Ledge Farm’s owner, Greg Berger, introduced the group to their property where they strive to provide the best products that they can and extend the season as long as they can – “hence the high tunnels.”

At Spring Ledge Farm, they have about 50 employees, both part- and full-time, in summer, and only around six full-time workers in winter. Their field manager, Tasha Dunning, led a group of visitors through their various high tunnels on the farm. Although they grow a wide variety of plants and produce such as spinach and tomatoes, the biggest part of their business is the potted plants.

“We’re the only place around that sells ornamentals,” explained Dunning.

Tasha Dunning is the field manager at Springe Ledge Farm in New Hampshire. Photo by Kelsi Devolve

Besides the tour of Spring Ledge Farm, both days of the conference were packed with educational sessions – both hands-on learning experiences and lectures. Attendees learned to identify common insects and high tunnel diseases on the first day and heard more about water management and cover crops on the second day.

It’s no secret that the climate has been changing throughout the years, fluctuating from one extreme – drought – to the next extreme – flooding. Joshua Faulkner from UVM cited some statistics from a 2017-2018 farmer survey. Out of the responses, it was clear that “a lot of the farmers do understand their vulnerability [to water extremes, both drought and flooding], but not many of them feel they have the resources to make change.”

When it comes to managing your water, Will Hastings from UNH spoke about the importance of recognizing a water shortage in your soil as soon as possible. Although there are ways to tell if a crop is experiencing stress, such as root rot from excessive water or decreased yield from lack of water, “crops are going to be experiencing stress long before their outward appearance” displays it.

Another highly discussed topic at this High Tunnel Conference was the benefits of growing cover crops in high tunnels. Becky Sideman from UNH conducted a poll of the attendees to see how many growers have used cover crops in their high tunnels. Out of 49 participants, 22 have never used cover crops and 21 have rarely. Most participants claimed they don’t use cover crops due to lack of space, time and the fear that the cover crop would be hard to kill when they’re done with it.

However, the half of the group who have used cover crops before mostly used buckwheat, oats, peas, tillage radish and winter rye. They saw benefits in their organic matter, weed suppression, increased nitrogen, pest reduction and reduced compaction.

by Kelsi Devolve