On August 5th, we attended the Fruit & Vegetable Field Day at the ISU Horticulture Research Station north of Ames. This is an annual event that is free for the public to attend - but the majority of attendees were commercial growers, Master Gardeners and extension personnel. It was a great event where we got to brush elbows with some of the knowledgeable ISU Extension specialists and researchers as well as chat with other Iowa producers from all across the state. They also provided a lovely picnic dinner for attendees. We highly recommend putting this on your calendar for next year!
Research projects that were demonstrated included cover crops, growing peaches and tomatoes in high tunnels, trellising small melons, pest management on cucurbits (covering them with nets), hops, bees, and biodegradable mulch trials. Below are some pictures from the event and some highlights of what we learned.
Most vegetables growers who use plastic mulches in their fields can appreciate the benefits of keeping weed pressure around summer crops to a minimum. But when it comes to removing the plastic mulch from the fields in the fall, farmers often complain about the effort and time that it takes to remove (not to mention the plastic waste that needs to be disposed of!) There are a handful of biodegradable mulches on the market these days, and they are trialing these mulches at the ISU Horticulture Research Station. Mulches were made from a plant-based cellulose plastic or creped paper. Thinner paper mulches were found to disintegrate shortly after installation, so thicker paper is suggested for use. This trial is still ongoing, but we look forward to learning more about the different biodegradable mulches and how the peppers performed in each.
Also, as you can see in the picture of this biodegradable mulch trial, there were signs in the vegetable fields informing visitors about best food safety practices. Food producers often struggle with how to inform farm visitors about food safety policies. A simple sign like the one pictured is a great way to inform your visitors about your safe food policies without having to give them a long speech!
The high tunnel peach trial compares the peach trees growing in a 20 ft tall high tunnel structure with the same trees growing outdoors. They are measuring growth of trees in both locations and comparing data, but they have yet to get a fruiting crop off of any of the trees in 4 years of the project so there is no data on how the high tunnel effects harvest potential. Peaches are generally a rare commodity in Iowa because of our fluctuating weather, so they are hoping to see some benefits from growing the trees inside a high tunnel. We've had some extremely crazy weather in the last few years, especially the sub-zero temps last winter, so it's apparent that the high tunnel does not protect the trees from all harsh weather!
The researcher shared information about the pruning of fruit trees when growing in a high tunnel (trees are pruned to have two lead branches to promote good airflow. Pruning also helps with keeping the trees from growing through the roof of the tunnel and keeping them a manageable height for when they do have peaches to harvest. While I don't anticipate encouraging anyone to grow fruit trees in a high tunnel anytime soon, I appreciate seeing how intensively fruit trees can be pruned and how good tree formation can benefit the harvest.
The melon trial focused on smaller melons (1-3 lbs) that could be trellised. ISU researchers grew about about 10 varieties of melons that included honeydews and cantaloupes. The flesh of the melons were a range of colors... including a white-fleshed honeydew! After they shared about controlling cucumber beetles, trellising techniques and planting flowers along the edges of the tunnel to attract pollinators, field day visitors were invited to taste the melons! Our favorite was a cantaloupe called sugar cube, but there were lots of other tasty varieties.
They had another melon trial where full-sized melons were growing under netting outdoors. This netting was intended to keep pests off of the plants... but that means the pollinators did not have access to the plants either. In order to pollinate the melons, a bumble bee box was installed under each netted tunnel, and the researchers were measuring the effectiveness of these bees as well as the pest prevention benefits of the netting.
One of the last fields we visited that day was their hops production field. It was amazing to see how tall these vines climb and to see the giant trellising systems that must be built to grow hops. This is a crop that is in high demand and fairly easy to grow in our state (the cost and labor to build the trellis is probably the hardest part!).
It was fun to learn about all the research that is going on at the ISU Horticulture Research farm this year, and I can't wait to hear how some of these trials turn out. It was an inspiring event for any gardener... observing innovative growing techniques, chatting with extension specialists, and witnessing how we can learn from both trial and error made for a very informative day!