Can the Northern Plains grow vegetables?
CROOKSTON, Minn. - University of Minnesota regional extension researchers Terry Nennich and Mike Klawitter like to imagine the day when the Northern Plains states become completely self-sufficient vegetable producers. They think it's possible wit...
CROOKSTON, Minn. - University of Minnesota regional extension researchers Terry Nennich and Mike Klawitter like to imagine the day when the Northern Plains states become completely self-sufficient vegetable producers. They think it's possible with the help of the high tunnel greenhouse.
"This is North Dakota's and Minnesota's hope to get away from California produce," Nennich says. "If we can get enough of these, we won't have to truck in vegetables year-around anymore. The thing is, they don't get vine-ripened - they don't have that. You take a tomato or a strawberry that's picked three-quarters green and ripens on the way to Minnesota - I don't think they have the total nutrition, and they sure don't have the flavor."
They're generating a lot of interest, with more than 150 high tunnels in Minnesota alone and the ability to produce anywhere from three to 10 times the yield of field crops.
"I have several producers that have five tunnels, and the biggest one I know has 20. The No. 1 crop that they grow in these is tomatoes, then cucumbers, then peppers. The last two years, we've been getting into lettuce, herbs and onions," XXXXX says.
Klawitter points to his row of lettuce.
"Right now, if that row of lettuce were an acre row, you'd be looking at about 22,000 pounds," he says.
Why do it?When Nennich approached the University of Minnesota Crookston seven years ago for project funding, he made a case for producer and consumer benefit alike.
"You're looking at the economics of supplying jobs and keeping farmers on the land," he says. "Then you're looking at the impact of community, and the person utilizing the product. And then there is the added health benefit and the enjoyment of having good, fresh produce for a long period of time."
The project started off small. "We started with our first research project something like six or seven years ago," Nennich says.
That number has exploded, he says.
"Now we have somewhere between 150 and 200 tunnels with different producers in the state of Minnesota. We have (research) stations in Grand Rapids, Staples, Waseca and Bagley. This one here is an organic tunnel, where we're trying to take a look at different ways of growing" produce.
Pointing to a small tray tomatoes freshly hand-picked by Holly Schmidt, the garden manager, Nennich shows firsthand the results they are seeing with the project.
"Notice how blemish-free they are," Nennich says.
He credits the enclosed environment with keeping out pests. In addition, the stabilized environment and applying water directly to the soil fights off disease.
"Without constant wet, it is just about impossible for any of these diseases to do any harm," Nennish says. "That's one of the major reasons that they can do it organic."
High tunnels trap radiant heat from the sun and utilize side vents that roll up to allow for cooling. If it gets too much below 50 degrees outside, then they roll them back down.
"There's no artificial heat, no fans, no nothing - even if it's raining, the suns always shining through the clouds, no matter how thick they are. The biggest problem that you have, even in April and May, is keeping them cool. That's why the sides roll up."
There is a trick to managing a tunnel, one that comes with experience.
"You have your heat in the middle," Klawitter says. "Use your outside (rows) like lettuce and onions. It's just naturally cooler out there."
Where does it all go?
"We have been supplying all of the cucumbers to the sisters' CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), or to the sisters as an in-kind fund," Nennich says. "Some of it will go to (a local grocery store) with a label on it that says 'Sisters of St. Benedict Organic.' We have a contract with them."
They also have watermelons, including Amish moon and star, and there are granite cantaloupe.
Nennich already is looking forward to next year's crop.
"The watermelons are already going to be about a month ahead of the outside-grown melons. By next Fourth of July, I will have local watermelons for sale," he says.