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Organic Greenhouse Vegetable Production


  • 1.800-346-9140ORGANIC GREENHOUSE VEGETABLE PRODUCTION HORTICULTURE SYSTEMS GUIDEAppr i e Technol Tropr at ogy ansf f Rur Ar er or al easATTRA is the national sustainable agriculture information center funded by the USDAs Rural Business -- Cooperative Service. Abstract: Organic greenhouse vegetable production is regularly practiced by certified organic farmers and market gardeners, and has potential for wider adaptation by established greenhouse operators and entry level growers as a niche market or sustainable method of production. This publication focuses on organic methods of greenhouse vegetable production, and it is supplemented with a listing of greenhouse resources.By Lane Greer and Steve DiverNCAT Agriculture SpecialistsJanuary, 2000IntroductionAlthough several Extension bulletins areavailable on greenhouse vegetable production,few of these concentrate on organic productionmethods. This publication presents an overviewof greenhouse production systems and profilesseveral farmers raising organic vegetables ingreenhouses. It is hoped this will give newgrowers ideas of how to set up their systems,and provide more experienced farmers withexamples of alternative methods of production.The term greenhouse means different things todifferent people. A greenhouse used to be astructure formed of glass, with a heating (andusually cooling) system that was used year-round, but especially in winter. Then came Indexhouses built of thermoplastic (Plexiglas and Introduction//Page 1others), followed by Quonsets covered with The Greenhouse Vegetable Industry//Page 2plastic, which may or may not be heated, have How Can Small Growers Compete?//Page 2 Organic Greenhouse Production//Page 4one or two layers, and be used year-round or for Soil vs. Soilless Culture//Page 7only a few months every year. The type of Soil Culture//Page 8 greenhouse you have will largely be determined Soilless Culture//Page 10by your crop and your capital and, to a lesser Hydroponics//Page 12 extent, by your management intensity and your Variety Selection//Page 13 market strategy. Economics//Page 13 Developments in the Greenhouse Industry//Page 14 For the purposes of this publication, a Summary//Page 15 greenhouse can be any of the above. Another References//Page 15ATTRA publication, Season Extension Techniques Seed Sources/Page 16 for Market Gardeners, contains further Organic Fertilizer Suppliers//Page 16information on protected shelter structures such Resources//Page 16 as cold frames, high tunnels or hoophouses,and low tunnels. ATTRA // ORGANIC GREENHOUSE VEGETABLE PRODUCTIONPage 1

2. The Greenhouse Vegetable Industry The leading states in greenhouse vegetableproduction are California, Florida, Colorado, Small-scale growers who plan on direct Arizona, Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvaniaall market sales may want to think twice with over one million square feet of production before getting into this business in a each (2). This is where the centers of region that is already saturated.production exist, both as a source of competitionas well as a source of technical assistance.Small-scale growers who plan on direct marketThe U.S. greenhouse vegetable industry is a sales may want to think twice before gettingmixture of small, family-run operations in theinto this business in a region that is already2,500 to 10,000 square foot range and a small saturated.number of large, multi-acre facilities 10 acres ormore in size. The larger greenhouses often useHow Can Small Producers Compete?waste heat from a power plant or other sourceof cogeneration (1).With so much competition from Canada,Mexico, and overseas, how can small farmersCurrent U.S. production estimates are realize a profit raising greenhouse vegetables?somewhere around 800 acres (2). InOne issue of increasing importance tocomparison, Mexico has about 450 acres, consumers is vegetables grown with minimumCanada has about 1,600 acres, and Holland has pesticides. The public has also become educatedover 11,000 acres (3, 4). In the latter part of the on the values of locally grown produce: its1990s, Canadian greenhouse vegetablefresher, it tastes better, and it may even be lessproduction grew at a rate of 20% a year. Howexpensive, since there are fewer shipping costshas Canada been able to generate this hugeinvolved. Also, money paid to a local farmer isgrowth? Significant new greenhouse vegetable re-invested in the local community and helps toproduction technology that was transferred to keep that economy strong.commercial producers has been primarilyresponsible for dramatic yield increases over the Year-round production is key to maintaining thelast 78 years, estimated at 100120% for greenhouses profitability. However, this doestomatoes and 7080% for cucumbers (3). not necessarily mean that growers should beCanada is strongly supporting its greenhouseproducing the same crop year-round. (Wintergrowers, both with research and withtomatoes bring more money than do summerinvestment dollars. Their research facilities atones.) Another option would be to raise a cropHarrow are recognized as topnotch the world other than vegetables, like bedding plants forover. Although most Canadian greenhouse early spring sales or poinsettias for Christmas.vegetables are not produced organically, thereThe grower may decide that the most cost-has been an emphasis of late to use IPM efficient way to use his or her greenhousestrategies, rather than pesticides, toduring the summer is to shut it up to solarizeaccommodate the growing market of consumers the soil and cook insects (and their eggs) thatwho want pesticide-free produce. Most of theare produce imported into the U.S. is nowcoming from Mexico. Small growers must find niche markets. It ispointless to try to compete with massTomatoes are the leading greenhouse vegetable merchandisers like Wal-Mart, because the smallcrop, followed by European cucumbers, lettuce,grower will always lose. What are some nichepeppers, and culinary herbs such as basil, sage,markets for organic greenhouse vegetableand rosemary. See the ATTRA publications on producers? Some of the general niches havethese specific vegetables for more information. already been mentioned: consumers are lookingIn addition, growers aiming at niche marketsfor organic, locally grown, early-seasonraise specialty crops, greens, and Oriental produce. Whatever the niche market, it isvegetables. important for growers to realize that the natureATTRA // ORGANIC GREENHOUSE VEGETABLE PRODUCTION Page 2 3. of niche markets is for them to disappear after ahelp growers identify some of the best resourceswhile. Oversupply or lowered demand will on this topic, ATTRA compiled the Solarcreate lower prices. The market will change to Greenhouses Resource List.favor one product and disfavor another. Thismay happen when mass merchandisers enter One recent publication that features organicthe market, when the popular press promotes avegetable production in a solar greenhouse isparticular vegetable, or when new medicalAnna Edeys book Solviva: How to Grow $500,000evidence points to increased or decreased health on One Acre and Peace on Earth. Solviva is Edeysbenefits from certain vegetables.award-winning solar-powered and animal- heated greenhouse on Marthas Vineyard. TheA good example of changes in a niche market is book discusses greenhouse design, function,the salad greens industry. Fifteen years ago, leaf construction, and management. Ms. Edeylettuce was almost impossible to find. Whenincludes numerous energy-efficient designs likeleaf lettuces were introduced to the general water walls and growtubes. She also tells howpublic, few people accepted them. When chefs much everything costs, which is invaluable forin finer restaurants began using them, moremarket gardeners. Solviva is available for $38affluent people began asking for them in from:markets. The undersupply led to extremelyhigh prices; as much as $16 per pound was not GFM Booksuncommon. More and more small growers PO Box 3747began producing salad greens, but it wasnt Lawrence, KS 66046until large growers entered the market that the 800-307-8949price per pound went down significantly (to $610 a pound). Many growers can still get $46 a Composting Greenhousespound for greens, but as more large growersenter the market, this price will continue toHeating greenhouses with waste heat generateddrop. Long before the market has bottomed outby compost is a second option that takesis when small growers need to diversify andadvantage of local resources and integratesfind ways to add value to their crops, likedifferent farm activities. In a compostingoffering pre-cut, washed and ready-to-eat mixedgreenhouse, heat and carbon dioxide arelettuces.generated from manure-based compost contained in a special chamber attached to oneLabor and energy are usually the two greatestside of the greenhouse.greenhouse expenses. If small growers can finda way to decrease costs of either or both of Compost-heated greenhouses gained a lot ofthese, their chances of making a profit areattention from work undertaken at The Newstrengthened. How can they do this? CheapAlchemy Institute at Falmouth,sources of energy are key. Sunlight, Massachusetts. The New Alchemy Institutedecomposing compost, and animal heat are was one of the premier appropriatethree ways to decrease energy costs. technology centers that operated in the 1970s and 80s. The Institute published widely onSolar Greenhousesecology, wind energy, solar energy, bioshelters, solar greenhouses, integrated pestGreenhouses can be designed to take advantagemanagement in greenhouses, organicof solar radiation and cut fuel expenses. Solarfarming, and sustainable agriculture.greenhouses are popular with small-scalegrowers. These are super-insulated Though the technology to implementgreenhouses designed to collect and retain solar compost-heated greenhouses exists, they areenergy. The technology associated with solar seldom done on a commerc