Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Cultivating Knowledge; Food, Fruit & Veggies… For thought

By John Wodehouse, Penn State Extension Educator, Chester County

Hundreds of fruit and vegetable growers and industry exhibitors gathered in Chocolate Town for the 2017 Mid Atlantic Fruit & Vegetable Convention.


Take heed, chocolate, there’s a new sweet in town. For four days in early February, vegetable and fruit producers met at the Hershey Lodge & Convention Center to learn more about the fruit and vegetable production business.


This is the first of three related articles. I encourage you to journey through the fruit and vegetable convention experience with me in the weeks to come. It’s more than just fruits and vegetables; it’s about sharing knowledge.


Back in mid-November, a fellow educator, John Berry, reached out to me with a question.


He said, “How’d you like to get involved at the Fruit & Vegetable Convention in Hershey this year?”  He quickly added: “The hot chocolate up there is the best.”


“Sure, sounds good,” I responded.


As I agreed to help, I was thinking: What a great opportunity to learn, while building and fostering networks. And who could pass up the great hot chocolate?


My charge was to assist Tom Butzler, of the Penn State Extension. This year, he and his team took care of the equipment set-ups for all the speakers. Tom asked me to load each presenter’s slides and make sure all the other technologies worked seamlessly. As you’ll see, I got a chance to do a lot more.


The first person I met when I arrived at the registration desk at 7:25 a.m. on Tuesday was Bill Troxell, of the Pennsylvania Vegetable Growers Association.  He happily greeted me and helped me with the registration process. Complete with a name tag, I was on my way.


Over the coming days, topic-specific research discussions, concerning either vegetables or fruits, in both English and Spanish, were offered each half-hour from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. Presentations were held in various rooms in the Convention Center. Some were given by the farm owners and growers themselves, while others were given by scholars and educators from such entities as Penn State and the Penn State Cooperative Extension, Cornell Cooperative Extension, Rutgers Cooperative Extension, the University of Maryland Extension, Michigan State, Virginia Tech, the Virginia Cooperative Extension, University of Delaware, University of Minnesota and North Carolina Extension. 


On Tuesday, more than 56 different session topics were offered through the day. Much of my time was spent in the Organic Vegetable session room.


At 8 a.m. sharp, I helped Tony Ricci load his presentation titled Organic Herb Production. Tony owns and operates the organic-certified Green Heron Farm and CSA in Huntington County, Pa. His discussion centered on adding herbs to your production mix, to add cash flow back into your business.


As I loaded his speaking materials into the computer, Tony and I talked about the beautiful herb pictures included in his slides. We then talked about the pros of planting herbs in addition to vegetables. The best part of Tony’s presentation - to the 60-plus growers in attendance during the first organic session - was that he gave away some of his best-kept secrets. He shared a few of his proven methods with regards to producing great, not just good, sage, parsley and Greek oregano.  


“Plant your herbs in double rows on black (not red) plastic, and treat them as annuals,” Tony recommended.  “This is done to preserve quality, disease resistance, and yield.”


Next up on in the Organic session room was Dr. Gladis Zinata of the Rodale Institute. Her  report was titled Adding in Rotational No-Till and Insectary Strips for Organic Cucumber Production. Dr. Zinata described the results of a cucumber test-plot she and a team planted and documented at Rodale. The experiment focused on this question: Does increasing species diversity by planting grass and perennial insectary strips between cucumber rows allow for improved natural insect and pathogenic resistance? My take after hearing her findings: Definitely yes. Dr. Zinata’s research supports adding grass strips and incorporating other vegetative diversity into your fields to offset the pressures of insect and disease.


Growers next met Jennifer Glenister, a senior staff member at the organic New Morning Farm in Hustontown, Pa. She has worked nine seasons at New Morning. She gave a very well-designed and well-delivered talk entitled Organic Snap Bean Production, followed by a lively Q&A session.


Jennifer shared her tried-and-true organic snap bean production strategies, along with her sowing and growing schedules. Especially valuable were her succession planting tips for longer harvests, and remedies she suggested for dealing with deer.


“We tried many things on the farm, but the one that worked for deer was the 3D electric fence,” Jennifer said, as a slide showing a three-tiered, offset, poly-wire fence came up.


While scouting, Jennifer said the minute she sees certain insect levels, she immediately deploys beneficial insects (a species of parasitic wasp) as a strategy to manage the yield-robbing pests.


Jennifer’s snappy presentation was followed by another inspiring discussion. This one, from Elsa Sanchez, Ph.D. and associate professor at Penn State, was entitled Using Cover Crops. Elsa talked about the benefits of diversifying cover crops. She encouraged the organic growers to combine different cover crops into their field rotations. Additionally, Elsa went into detail about choosing cover crops with alleopathic characteristics, such as wheat and grain rye.


“Wheat and rye cover crops both contain beneficial natural weed suppressants,” Elsa said.


The term alleopathic refers to cover crops with natural weed suppression characteristics. During her discussion, Elsa also gave the group per-acre cover crop seeding rates and biomass tonnage per-acre estimates for cover crops.


An informative discussion given by Abby Seaman of the New York State IPM Program, on Managing Late Blight on Organic Farms, followed Elsa’s cover crop discussion. Abby mentioned the need for producers to scout the field for fall-offs and/or leftovers. Her recommendation:  try to eliminate any volunteer tomato and potato plants before they germinate to reduce the likelihood of late blight outbreaks in the next season.


“Late blight on potatoes and tomatoes needs living tissue to overwinter, so I recommend removing any leftover product from the field,” Abby said.


During Abby’s presentation, we also learned about two internet-based resources designed to help producers report and monitor late blight in Pennsylvania and New York.


I met Dr. Julie Grossman, professor and originator of The Grossman Lab at the University of Minnesota while helping her set up in the Organic session room. She delivered two afternoon presentations. Her first was entitled Overcoming Tunnel Vision – Using Cover Crops in High Tunnels. Her second presentation, Zone Tillage for Organic Vegetables, wrapped up the organic sessions on Tuesday.


Dr. Grossman shared her research findings and the beneficial outcomes of her research team for planting cover crops directly inside high tunnels. She provided cover crop planning strategies growers can employ right away in their tunnels to not only improve soil health and limit soil compaction, but also to better manage weeds and help prevent insect damage.

Of the 56 fruit and vegetable presentations delivered on Tuesday, I had the joy of attending seven of them. The experience was amazing. So many enthusiastic presenters, all in one place at the same time. The knowledge attendees gained from scholars, educators and growers will no doubt be put to work on farms across the commonwealth.


For future reference, feel free to explore the following informative and educational resource links: