Fruit and Vegetable Production: What’s Next with Consumers, Technology, and More?

The International Fresh Produce Association (https://www.freshproduce.com/) was formed in January 2022 to “speak with a unified, authoritative voice, demonstrate its relevance to the world at large, advocate for members’ interests, and unleash a new understanding of fresh produce.” IFPA advocates, connects, and guides to enhance the prosperity of its members. IFPA membership is large and diverse and IFPA actions and resources can affect and inform growers of all types.

Dr. Max Teplitski is an OSU graduate and the Chief Science Officer of the IFPA. Dr. Chieri Kubota of HCS (https://hcs.osu.edu/) and the OSU Controlled Environment Agriculture Center (https://ohceac.osu.edu/) arranged for Dr. Teplitski to visit with OSU faculty and administration on Nov 4th. He also delivered a presentation outlining research expected to help ensure a sustainable future for the fresh produce industry. Areas of research he outlined were informed by intense evaluation of consumer groups and various trends across the U.S., Europe, and other locations.

Dr. Teplitski highlighted data and information that help explain current and emerging consumer interests. Like growers, the IFPA is interested in what is selling now and what is most likely to sell later. With that in mind, Dr. Teplitski’s summary included many important take-home messages for growers and others, but two messages will be emphasized here. First, recent analysis by IFPA and its partners revealed that consumers cited product quality, price, and nutritional value as their top three considerations when purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables. Interestingly, sustainability-related factors such as environmental impact or recyclable or reusable packaging showed up as consumer demands but not drivers of their purchases. In this analysis, consumers appeared to indicate: (a) that they assume growers and others are operating in a sustainability-driven framework, so (b) focus on other considerations, including quality, price, and nutritional value. This does not reduce the potential importance of sustainability-related factors. In fact, it may signal that consumers expect them to be an industry standard – i.e., in place before consumers begin to separate products based on their other characteristics. Growers may be helped in adjusting to this development by, for example, retailers that look to preferentially source produce from suppliers who use integrated pest management and other sustainability-oriented approaches.

A second message that stood out in Dr. Teplitski’s presentation related to: (a) the increasing consumer acceptance of novel (e.g., tasteful, colorful, pest/disease and stress resistant) varieties developed through bioengineering and gene editing and (b) technologies and systems that enhance the digitization of the industry. Growers familiar with the initial introduction of “GMO” fruits and vegetables years ago may recall their relatively weak acceptance in many markets. The pendulum has not swung entirely toward acceptance. However, use and presentation (labeling) of these genetic technologies is improving, and consumer acceptance appears to be following. This trend has the potential to benefit growers, consumers, and others. Further strategic digitization will have the same impacts. Fruit and vegetable production is a numbers-driven business throughout the value chain, from input supplies and farms to plates. Having and being able to integrate and use key weather, soil, crop, market, and other data will impact day to day and season to season practices.

Stay tuned to updates from IFPA and other member-led organizations working on behalf of their members, consumers, researchers and educators, and others.

New Plant Hardiness Zone, Growing Degree Day, and Heat Zone Maps

Specialty crop growers and their workers, schedules, expenses, incomes, and crops are impacted by air and soil temperatures on and near their farms around the clock, even when production is suspended for the season. Temperatures never rest in influencing a long list of soil, crop, production, and cost-revenue variables. This fact explains why so much time, effort, and money are spent measuring, analyzing, interpreting, and presenting temperature data in ways useful to growers and others.

Two new resources outlined below will interest fruit, vegetable, and other growers.

The USDA-ARS manages information available at https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/pages/view-maps.

The page includes updated maps of plant hardiness zones available at high resolution (e.g., see the images below and scale bars). Maps can be downloaded, if needed. Plant hardiness zones affect cash and cover crop selection and performance, overall seasonal scheduling, and other variables.

The USDA and U.S. Forest Service manage the large amount of information and number of maps available at https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/9ee0cc0a070c409cbde0e3a1d87a487c. Pages and maps include descriptions of current and projected growing degree days, plant hardiness zones, and heat zones. Also, links to other pages with additional information are available. The current (top) and projected (bottom) heat zone maps below are interesting in what they could signal about potential long-term shifts in crop selection and scheduling, farm worker conditions, the use of plastic mulches and low and high tunnels and related technologies, biology (e.g., pests, diseases, weeds, beneficials), soil nutrient cycling, and more. Still, farmers appreciate that even small, more incremental changes in the short-term can be meaningful.

 

 

What impacts of temperature affect you most?

Greater Success through Improved Management of High Tunnel Environments

Crop yield and quality can be maximized through properly manipulating or managing environmental conditions inside the high tunnel (e.g., light, temperature, relative humidity, and wind in addition to soil moisture, fertility, and other key variables). Temperature, relative humidity, and air movement inside the high tunnel follow conditions outside it and the position (open to closed) of the end-walls, sidewalls, and vents, which are set by the grower. Research underway in Wooster and on the farms of grower-cooperators is designed to minimize the guesswork associated with knowing just what the ventilation status of a high tunnel should be at any one time to achieve the desired cropping outcomes.

One study involves testing the impacts of “kneewalls,” which are sections of plastic installed behind approximately two-thirds of each sidewall for the fall through spring period. Most high tunnel sidewalls roll up to open. When ventilating fall through spring (e.g., to reduce temperature and/or relative humidity and/or increase carbon dioxide levels), opening standard sidewalls can expose crops or seedlings directly to cold air or wind and lower soil temperature, which is also undesirable. We suspect these problems can be mitigated by using kneewalls. We have experimented with them informally on a limited basis for four years and have been excited by our observations. We will soon begin rigorous, comprehensive assessments of the effects of kneewalls on crops and soils.

That effort is part of a much larger examination of relationships among: (a) outside weather conditions (light temperature, wind), (b) high tunnel ventilation status (sidewall and endwall position), (c) air and soil temperatures and relative humidity level inside the high tunnel, and (d) crop yield and quality and soil status.

This effort is starting with our recording data on those variables every five minutes in multiple high tunnels on a continuous basis; our current pace is approximately 130,000 measurements every thirty days in each high tunnel. This approach and pace are essential to achieving our goal of helping growers and others by clarifying relationships among the weather conditions, ventilation status, conditions inside the high tunnel, and crop and soil variables. Findings may reinforce some of what is commonly thought about those relationships and challenge other commonly popular ideas. We are optimistic that, ultimately, what is learned through the work will save growers time, money, and headaches … i.e., will help them be more successful. Stay tuned and contact us if you would like to participate in this research!

Scouting Notes From the Wayne County IPM Program

Here are our weekly observations from the fields and farms around Wayne County from the week of July 11-15.

Vegetable Crops

Probably the biggest development in our area was the presence of cucurbit downy mildew on a path of cucumbers in southern Wayne County. This means there are active infections in Wayne and Medina counties, and likely the surrounding counties. Ideal conditions for continued progression and infection will exist in the coming days. It is important to take steps now to protect your cucumbers and cantaloupes.

Powdery mildew found on a cucurbit plant in a Wayne County field.

Powdery mildew on cucurbits continued to spread rapidly, spurned on by several foggy mornings in the area.

As early plantings of summer squash and other cucurbits are harvested, it is important to practice good sanitation in the fields. Do not allow these areas to become diseased and insect infested, as they will only lead to problems in other areas on your farm. Once you are done harvesting an area, it is best to terminate the crop and either incorporate or remove the residue. 2

Other disease concerns revolved around bacterial diseases on peppers and tomatoes. We started to find some bacterial spot/speck on these crops.

Insect wise, it was an active week. Cole crops are still facing significant pressure from flea beetles and imported cabbage worm. European corn borer was identified in a few pepper plantings. Cucurbit crops saw increased activity from cucumber beetles, squash bug and squash vine borer.

Small Fruit and Orchards

A few diseases like scab and blister spot have started to show up on leaves in apples orchards, otherwise, the majority of any disease pressure has subsided after dealing with several rounds of fire blight outbreaks. Insect pressure in apples has slowed some as codling presence has remained low, however, some orchards are still facing some persistent damage from European red mites.

Some of our oriental fruit moth traps showed a significant flight, with some traps averaging nearly 30 moths per trap. Red mites were still active in the peach blocks as well this week.

The season is wrapping up for some of our raspberry growers, and blueberries won’t be far behind. With blackberries now coming into season, it is still important to be aware of the presence of the spotted wing drosophila, which are still being found in most of our traps. Japanese beetles may also be causing some troubles for small fruit grower, especially those with grape vines. We observed significant defoliation from Japanese beetles on grapes in several areas of the county this week.

 

Scouting Notes from the Wayne County IPM Program

Here are our weekly crop scouting observations from the week of July 4-July 8.

Vegetable Crops

The warm temperatures and accumulated heat units have kept our insect pests active and building in population. Cucumber beetles, squash bugs and squash vine borer were all active this week in cucurbit plantings and fields. Additionally in squash, we noted our first sighting of powdery mildew in an area of first planting summer squash.

The warm and sunny days have also led to some challenges with sun scald. Unfortunately, the heavy winds and rains from the storms had pushed plants over, which allowed for the first set of vegetables, such as in peppers or tomatoes, to be exposed to direct sun and extreme heat.

Growers with cole crops may still be battling flea beetle and imported cabbage worms. Significant egg laying from the cabbage white butterflies gives us the heads up to scout our cole crops very closely to watch for hatching eggs and young caterpillars.

Generally speaking, the Japanese beetles have begun their entrance into a wide range of vegetable crops. In some cases, isolated cases of heavy feeding damage may severely damage the foliage and stunt young plants. Frequent scouting can help you make timely management decisions, therefore avoiding significant damage from the Japanese beetles.

Small Fruit and Orchards

European red mites were found in apples and peaches this week, and in a few cases, the populations had reached significant levels, with severe feeding damage present on the foliage. As was the case in vegetable crops, the Japanese beetles feeding on orchard trees and small fruit plants started to cause some significant defoliation.

Spotted wing drosophila were found in all of our traps. Accordingly, small fruit growers should be aware that we are now fully into SWD season.

Fire blight in apples has been our main disease concern to this point. We did note a few cases of apple scab on leaves in some orchards around the area.

Overall, fruit development in orchards and small fruit production areas is coming along nicely and should be greatly benefited by the timely rains.

Scouting Notes From the Wayne County IPM Program

Here are our weekly observations and notes from the fields around Wayne County from the week of June 20-24, 2022.

Vegetable Crops

Now is a critical time to be monitoring your cucurbit crops for cucumber beetles. Early populations may not seem as evident due to the presence of insecticide in treated seed, however, as the efficacy of the seed treatment diminishes, the cucumber beetle feeding will begin to increase. The threshold for beetles while the plants are in the 2-4 leaf stage is 1 beetle per plant. Once the plant is above the 4-leaf stage, the threshold increases to 3 beetles per plant. The greatest chance for impactful feeding damage and bacterial wilt infection via the cucumber beetle occurs during early season feeding.

Squash bug found in Wayne County on yellow squash. Cucumber beetles feeding in the background. F. Becker, 2022.

Also, of note in cucurbits, the excess moisture and warm conditions allowed for development of some phytophthora cases. If you suspect that you have plants infected by this pathogen, avoid spreading it in your fields by removing and destroying infected fruit and plant material. An integrated approach to managing this disease includes practices such as avoiding excess water, sufficient crop rotations and fungicide treated seed. Additional findings in cucurbits included squash bugs being found this week in an early planting of yellow squash.

An area of yellow squash plants lost due to phytophthora, F. Becker, 2022.

Continue to monitor onions for thrips populations. The recent heavy rain may have prevented populations from building, however, hot dry weather, combined with the increased size and number of leaves can provide the opportunity for thrips numbers to escalate rapidly.

In tomatoes our scouts noted some observations of early blight and Septoria.

Remember to check your crops for any signs of foliar diseases, especially with the amount of soil splashing that took place in the last few weeks. Bacterial and fungal diseases can be spread on the lower leaves of plants when heavy rains splash soil and pathogens onto the foliage. Overall, stress from high temperatures has been evident in a majority of the crops that we are scouting.

Small Fruit and Orchards

Male SWD, Thomas Becker photo, 2022

Female SWD, Thomas Becker photo, 2022.

Spotted winged drosophila have been caught in traps around Wayne County. As we move out of strawberry season into raspberries/blackberries/blueberries, the SWD populations will begin to increase leading to possible infestations in ripening brambles and blueberries.

In apples, we continued to find strikes of fire blight. Conditions have been ideal for fire blight development, although dryer conditions may hinder further development. This week we continued to find aphids in apple trees. Our IPM program identified populations of green apple aphids in several orchards as well as a case of wooly apple aphids. Both aphid species can cause significant damage at this time of year. Accordingly, diligent scouting is a crucial aspect to not allowing either of these aphid species from getting out of hand. The heavy rains likely knocked back some of these aphid populations, but it will be important to monitor aphid populations as dry conditions take hold.

We have had sustained catches (over threshold) of both Codling Moth and Oriental Fruit Moth in apple and peach orchards, respectively. Over the last week, both Codling Moth and Oriental Fruit Moth populations have been trending downward, however, numbers have still exceeded the thresholds.

Now is the time to be managing early season diseases in apples. Scab, rust and powdery mildew are the three main diseases of concern at this point in the season.

Once strawberry harvest is over, it is a good time to consider renovation of the patch. The goals in renovation are to reduce plant numbers by narrowing the rows, remove old foliage (reduces diseases), control weeds, and reduce insect pests. After renovation, regular irrigation and weed control are essential. High yields next year depend on having large, healthy, vigorous plants when fruit buds are initiated in late summer.

We have started catching grape berry moth in our traps.

Scouting Notes from the Wayne County IPM Program

Here are our weekly observations and notes from the fields around Wayne County from the week of June 13-17, 2022.

Vegetable Crops

The Colorado Potato Beetle larvae have hatched and are now feeding in both potato and eggplant. When approaching plants to look for them, be cautious. When the beetle is startled, they drop to the ground and may be difficult to see. They do significant damage to the foliage and can cause significant reduction in yield. The Colorado Potato Beetle also has a history of developing resistance to insecticides being used as control measures. This has limited our choices for treatment options. The best way to prevent further resistance is to avoid using the same insecticide repeatedly. At the current plant stage for potato, the threshold is approximately 1 beetle per plant. For eggplant, it is 25 beetles per 50 plants.

In summer squash/zucchini, we are seeing an increase in the number of cucumber beetles. The seed treatment on these plants is beginning to reach the end of it’s efficacy. For fall vine crops that have just been planted in the last week or so, that seed treatment should still have a few weeks of efficacy left.

In onions, we have noticed an increase in the number of thrips, in many cases approaching an action threshold. Threshold is 25-30 thrips per plant. This week we also found more incidences of slippery skin which was confirmed by the vegetable pathology lab at OARDC earlier this month. Slippery skin is caused by Pseudomonas gladioli. This bacterium is spread via soil splashing from heavy rains and enters the plant through natural openings or openings from mechanical injury. Given the heavy rains we have experienced in the past week, it would probably be a good idea to get out and check your onions.

Overall, tomatoes are continuing to grow rapidly in the greater Wayne County area, with some plantings of field tomatoes beginning to set blooms. We did have a case of timber rot identified in the West Salem area in field tomato. It is important to practice good crop rotations and rotate out of a crop family completely for at least 3-4 years. A complete crop rotation will help to break up disease and pest cycles. Similar to onions, tomatoes can contract bacterial diseases from soil splashing. If you have tomatoes, it may be worthwhile checking the lower canopy of your plants to monitor the presence of any diseases.

Our IPM pest scouts have continued to find Mexican bean leaf beetles in the green beans this week. Light foliar feeding was observed.

With the warmer weather and plants maturing rapidly, the slug threat has greatly reduced in the last week. Any new transplants should still be monitored for feeding, however there should be less of a slug presence for the rest of the growing season.

 

Small Fruit and Orchards

This week we continued to find aphids in apple trees. Our IPM program identified populations of green apple aphids in several orchards as well as a case of wooly apple aphids. Both aphid species can cause significant damage at this time of year. Accordingly, diligent scouting is a crucial aspect to not allowing either of these aphid species from getting out of hand. The heavy rains likely knocked back some of these aphid populations, but it will be important to monitor aphid populations as the weather dries out a bit.

In apples, we continued to find a few instances of fire blight. Conditions have been ideal for fire blight development, so it is not much of a surprise to see some cases.

We have had sustained catches (over threshold) of both Codling Moth and Oriental Fruit Moth in apple and peach orchards, respectively. Over the last week, both Codling Moth and Oriental Fruit Moth populations have been trending downward, however, numbers have still exceeded the action thresholds.

With the storms over the course of the last week, it is not unlikely that we will see some yield loss from wind, heavy rains, or hail damage in many of the area’s fruit trees.

Now is the time to be managing early season diseases in apples. Scab, rust and powdery mildew are the three main diseases of concern at this point in the season.

Strawberry leaf diseases may appear unsightly right now, however, now is not the time to be managing these leaf diseases. Once harvest is done and during patch renovation it is recommended that you address these concerns, either with a fungicide or with resistant plant varieties. This is also a critical time to be watching for fruit rots such as Botrytis.

Grapes are currently around the buckshot berry stage. It is still possible to spray for and manage black rot during this time.

Mechanization-Automation in Vegetable Production: It’s Personal and Important

The big picture is that (vegetable) farming has been mechanizing and automating aggressively for more than a century, although the pace seems to be accelerating and the range of tasks targeted for improvement seems to be increasing. There are many reasons for these trends, but all may come down to the fact that technology that addresses peoples’ needs is personal and, therefore, important. Indeed, read nearly any issue of The American Vegetable Grower Magazine (or its online counterpart https://www.growingproduce.com/), The Vegetable Growers News (https://vegetablegrowersnews.com/magazine/), or other farmer-focused magazine, blog, or newsletter, watch videos or listen to podcasts, or attend industry programs and you will be exposed to personal stories of how specific machines or pieces of equipment are assisting growers in some new way at some point from seeding through post-harvest handling. Stories come from input suppliers, growers, people in extension and research, equipment manufacturers and retailers, and others. Collectively, these stories have given me many lessons but three will be highlighted here.

First, overall, mechanization and semi- to full automation of core farm activities will continue. Trends begun long ago are fully established with incentives to mechanize/automate increasing and obstacles to the process decreasing. Second, growers have various options now and will have others going forward. “There’s an app for that” was popularized about thirteen years ago (and trademarked soon after). However, it now also seems to apply to equipment or machines designed to help farmers since some see nearly every major vegetable seedling or crop production activity historically requiring people as eligible for some form of mechanization or automation. GPS and/or laser-guided automatic weeders/cultivators demonstrated at a recent industry program in Ontario, Canada (https://onvegetables.com/2022/02/28/tomato-day-coming-on-march-10-2022/) and available for rent were especially impressive to me, although many other examples of grower-friendly options are available or in the pipeline (e.g., “scouts,” sensors/actuators, samplers, seeders, transplanters, sprayers, harvesters, etc). Examples are often on display at conferences, tradeshows, and expos in and around Ohio and farther away (e.g., https://www.worldagexpo.com/ – see list of exhibitors at 2022 program). It is also important to note that some machines or pieces of equipment are being designed with more than completing the task in mind (e.g., environmental sustainability). The third lesson available from paying attention to mechanization-automation in the vegetable and specialty crop sector is that off-the-shelf technology that reduces down-time, increases efficiency and/or productivity, or provides other benefits is increasingly practical to an increasingly diverse range of vegetable growers, regardless of the size, location, or other characteristics of their operation. Formerly most relevant to very large, heavily capitalized operations, current generations of machines and pieces of equipment are available to a much larger group of vegetable farms. Some developers, manufacturers, and retailers are more willing to discuss or offer: a) machinery and equipment applicable across more production conditions (including farm size) and b) lease or lease-to-own access. So, access to viable options for mechanizing-automating is increasing, and the time may be right to experiment on your farm.

There is much to consider and a lot at stake when mechanizing-automating and various approaches are used. The farmers responsible for https://www.growingproduce.com/vegetables/why-one-small-vegetable-farm-adopted-mechanization/ emphasize relying on input from other farmers, including via YouTube. Going forward, we will feature grower experiences with tools improving vegetable production we are helping pilot, including systems increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of high tunnel ventilation (temperature, humidity) management.

Why Aren’t My High Tunnel Tomato Plants Growing Faster?

Beginning about now and lasting through mid-April, I am often asked by high tunnel tomato growers why their crop is not developing as rapidly as they expect. Troubleshooting covers a wide range of possible explanations. As various ones are considered and ruled out, the possibility they have overlooked the role of soil temperature becomes more important. The high tunnel may be heated, and the crop may have been irrigated and fertilized aggressively, but there is usually no record of the soil temperature, which greenhouse growers know is very important and work to optimize. After all, root growth significantly influences shoot growth and root growth is influenced by soil or root zone temperature.

In my view, we know far too little about soil temperatures in high tunnels — what the optimal ones are at any time and how to achieve them. Still, discussing this with people in Ohio and other states and having done some research on the topic, I was asked to summarize findings at the recent Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention in Hershey PA (https://www.pvga.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/Mid-Atlantic-Convention-Program-22-website.pdf). The subject of the presentation was “root zone heating and root zone temperatures for high tunnel growers” and what follows are a few messages from that presentation.

Root systems are rarely seen but their size, form, and function influence every aspect of the crop, including the size of the canopy and crop marketable yield and profit potential.

Root systems are hard-wired to follow general patterns as they develop. However, conditions surrounding root systems influence their development significantly. Further, those conditions include temperature and are partially set by the grower. So, growers are partially responsible for root system development and function. While a “strong” canopy is good evidence of an equally strong root system, without another canopy to compare it to, it is difficult to be sure it is as strong and productive as it could be. This indicates that a little on-farm experimentation can go a long way in helping optimize total crop management. It also reminds us that since we usually cannot see roots while experimenting or farming, we often need to rely on tracking factors we can measure and that are known to influence root system development and function.

Research findings suggest that tomato growth and production tend to be greatest at root zone temperatures of 65-70 degrees F. This begs two questions.

First, are root zone temperatures in your high tunnel in the optimal range as often as possible? Do you measure soil and irrigation water temperatures? We have recorded soil temperatures every fifteen minutes for various entire seasons in high tunnels and open fields at OSU-Wooster/OARDC and some of the data are shown below (click to enlarge, if needed). Notice the description of the situation in which the readings were taken and when soil temperature readings were in the optimal range. These readings may or may not represent your farm or crops. However, the data may give clues as to the potential temperatures in your fields and high tunnels and encourage you to record those temperatures directly. Reliable, easy to use, inexpensive instruments are available for doing that.

About irrigation water – much of it draws from wells and surface sources and can be very cold (from the crop’s perspective) fall through spring. Although it has not been tested to my knowledge, passing well, surface, or municipal water through drip lines in a high tunnel, heated or not, may be unable to bring its temperature to 65-70 deg F. So, irrigation in the earliest part of the season may amount to bathing roots in water well below the optimal temperature for tomato and other crops and heating the air may overcome that issue only partially.

This brings us to Question 2. Are you convinced that your returns on investments in high tunnel heating, especially of the air for early season tomato production, are as high as possible? If the air temperature is high but soil temperature is low, are you getting as much from the relatively short photoperiods as you could? In early spring, crops may be more limited by a lack of sunlight than below-optimal air temperatures (and excessive heating during extended low-light periods may be counterproductive). We cannot change daylength or cloud cover, but we have some control over air and soil temperatures and may benefit from bringing investments in them into alignment with daylength. For example, should heating increase with daylength? What is the return on investment in aggressive air heating when daylength is very short soon after transplanting?

Addressing those questions opens doors to exploring the relative value of investments in air, soil, or combined heating. That is a subject for other discussions and articles, but it is worth asking if investments in air heating are returning as much as we expect based on the air temperature alone. The 11/6/21 issue of VegNet included an article on root and air heating in fall-time high tunnel leafy vegetable production (https://u.osu.edu/vegnetnews/2021/11/06/soil-heating-effects-on-days-to-harvest-quality-and-regrowth-of-three-high-tunnel-and-fall-grown-vegetable-crops/) and our previous research included spring season experiments, too. Individual crops respond differently to air and soil temperature due to biology and other reasons. For example, the growing tip of lettuce plants is closer to the soil surface than the growing tip of tomato plants and, therefore, may be more strongly impacted by root zone temperature and heating over brief periods.

The point here is that investments in high tunnel heating may be most effective when taking the whole cropping cycle and rotation into account. High tunnel management systems, including temperature, can be designed around one or a set of crops – i.e., around optimizing income from one crop or across the year. Of course, this would occur on a farm by farm, market by market basis. This spring and season, as you are able, consider taking a moment to examine your high tunnel temperature management practices and ask if they maximize your entire annual profit potential.

Solar Energy and Your Farm

Whereas photosynthetic organisms convert light to chemical energy, solar panels begin the process of converting light to electrical energy. No one is isolated from the effects and importance of photosynthesis, and it seems that a growing number of people are increasingly reliant on and affected by solar energy in one way or another, too. Farmers and other landowners in Ohio and throughout the U.S. are currently intersecting directly with solar energy in at least four ways. They are using solar energy from the grid, weighing options for leasing land to solar energy projects adding to the grid, exploring options for integrating farming and solar energy production (the process of “agrivoltaics”), and/or they are experimenting with using electricity they generate using solar capture completed as a ‘private’ activity.

What to look for as you considering leasing land for solar energy development is the subject of three free webinars organized by Penn State University Extension. The webinar held on February 23, 2022 featured Scott R. Kurkoski of Levene Gouldin and Thompson, LLP (https://www.lgtlegal.com/) as the technical presenter. His comments were very practical and informative, especially for landowners in the early stages of evaluating a potential relationship with a solar project. Watch the webinar at https://psu.mediaspace.kaltura.com/media/Leasing+Your+Land+for+Solar+Energy+DevelopmentA+Webinar+on+2-23-22/1_xt3id0rt and consider registering for the webinars to be held on March 16 (Evaluating the Contract Terms When Leasing Your Land for Solar Energy Development; www.bit.ly/solarMarch16) and March 23 (Solar Leasing Questions, Answers, and Wrap-up; www.bit.ly/solarMarch23). Or contact Tom Murphy of Penn State Extension for more information (tbm1@psu.edu) on the webinars.

In an article posted to VegNet on December 19, 2021 (https://u.osu.edu/vegnetnews/2021/12/19/a-simple-inexpensive-diy-system-for-controlling-the-height-of-high-tunnel-sidewall-rollbars-remotely/), I outlined a small but important project involving electricity generated by one solar panel attached to a high tunnel at OSU in Wooster. That panel and the battery it charges has powered an inflation fan, sensors collecting temperature data, four motors driving end wall vents and sidewall motors, and the panel controlling them all nonstop for more than six years. The battery has been replaced once. This is one small example of how on-site solar power generation can benefit a grower.

What happens to and/or can be done with land beneath a large array of solar panels setup to supply the grid (or local operation) is a major question for landowners and solar project officials alike. Officials with no interest in using the land for an additional purpose still tend to require it to be maintained to a basic extent so the project is not compromised. However, in other cases, landowners (farmers) and solar officials explore the “agrivoltaics” (AV) option. Two broad versions of agrivoltaics are taking root but progressing at slightly different rates. In one, land near the solar panels is grazed (e.g., by small ruminants) mainly to control vegetation but also to help generate revenue. In the second version, revenue-generating crops (vegetables? forages? fruit? flowers?) are grown on land beside or below the solar panels. Water released through plant leaves cools the panels by evaporation and reduces the heat-island effect common in solar panel-only facilities. Therefore, the panels operate more efficiently in converting sunlight to electricity. Other potential benefits of AV include more efficient water and land use, less heat stress on plants and panels, and more energy capture – meaningful financial and environmental gains. Clearly, the ‘trick’ is in designing the system to serve and optimize as many functions as possible.

Not surprisingly, agrivoltaics is regarded as a potentially significant partial solution to complex and widespread challenges. AV combines solar power generation and farming. Normally, these processes occur independently and separately. AV theory integrates them in exciting ways by requiring the processes to occur simultaneously on the same land. Early-stage test results in parts of the U.S., Europe, and Australia have created optimism. However, significant challenges exist in integrating photovoltaic power generation and agriculture on working farms. In May, I will be fortunate to begin collaborating with experts at Central Queensland University in Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia and industry partners in identifying the best next steps in utilizing agrivoltaics more effectively, including in Ohio and the region. This Fulbright-supported project will help ensure a rapid and effective transfer of understanding and capacity between OH/the U.S. and Queensland/Australia. Look for updates in these pages and other outlets or contact me anytime for more information on the project.