Celia Barss, owner of Woodland Gardens, a 12+ acre organic farm just outside of Athens in Winterville, Georgia, know the benefits and weaknesses of hoop houses firsthand. With about an acre and a half of hoop houses, the oldest one at the 15-year mark, Barss recounts how her hoop houses started to suffer a decline in production, due to pest and disease pressure, around year ten.
One of the prime issues in Barrs’ hoop houses, which is common with most growers, is root knot nematodes, parasites that build up to large numbers in the beds and destroy root systems. “Everyone will end up having problems with it, because they’re present in our soil – it’s a matter of time,” says Barss.
“Our hoop houses have been here for a long time, so we’re seeing more of the problems,” she adds.
Dr. Elizabeth Little, extension plant pathologist and associate professor with University of Georgia, has been working with Barss and Woodland Gardens for over seven years, and she backs up the grower’s assessment.
“It’s not just with Celia’s – hoop houses are valuable territory,” Little says. “They tend to be used extensively, and growers don’t always do the same cover crops and long-term rotations that they do in the fields”.
“Most of the small, local, organic producers have at least one hoop house,” adds Little. “But, they don’t really come with instructions,” she jokes.
Little is evaluating different best management practices to keep issues like nematodes at bay, including cover crop rotations, non-host rotations, soil solarization in the summer, and different soil inputs.
“There are challenges with the research. You can prove something and have results – but is it something that will work with the grower?”, says Barss.
According to Barss, because many growers get their first hoop houses through NRCS grants, this is an important issue for everyone. For growers with only a few houses who will want to push production, “you invest a lot in these hoop houses, so you need to get production out of them and stabilize farm income,” she adds.
Barss’ moveable hoop houses don’t experience the same level of nematodes issues, because the soil isn’t being as used as intensely. As for her old hoop houses, “I’m not using them as intensively as I used to, and in my newer houses, I’m not pushing it as much,” says Barss. “We’re still having success, enough of a return… but we have to negotiate and manage the problem”.
Barss and Little will be sharing best preventative management practices that have come out of research and trials at their “Advanced Hoop House Soil Management” session at the Georgia Organics conference.
“Growers often aren’t aware of soil-borne problems that build for quite a while,” says Little. “It can help raise their awareness of potential issues, so they can take preventative measures as needed”.
On farm research is always a challenge, says Little, but “there’s a need for more research on what works in organics in Georgia”. But in partnering with Barss, Little can work to replicate results, providing critical research that is based on years-long, long-term trials. This research, says Barss, is about meeting the growers’ needs, whether they are “new farmers or farmers eight years in.”