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Light at the End of the High Tunnel

A longer growing season for some fruits and vegetables and less dependence on petroleum-based products are possible outcomes of two new and connected research projects being conducted at the WSU Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center at Mount Vernon by WSU faculty.

Plant pathologist Debra Inglis and horticulturists Carol Miles and Tom Walters at Mount Vernon, along with fabric scientist Karen Leonas and economist Tom Marsh in Pullman and Extension educators Andrew Corbin in Snohomish County and Annabel Kirschner in Thurston County, are working together to develop a new agricultural production system using high tunnels and biodegradable mulch. Their work is being funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Research Imitative.

High tunnel

High tunnels, also known as “hoop houses,” are temporary field structures, covered with single- or double-layered plastic, designed to extend the growing season and intensify production. They create a micro-climate and protect a crop from wind, rain, and hail, increase daytime temperatures and enable off-season production of many crops. Miles says their project focuses on the use of high tunnels for lettuce, tomatoes, and strawberries. The preliminary work, which took two years, is now completed.

Area growers helped to inform that early work and are involved in the next phase as well, bringing real-world factors to bear on the research, Miles said. “I enjoy the direct linkage of working with growers and industry,” she said.

In conjunction with the high tunnels, the research team also is working to develop a biodegradable fabric mulch to replace the black plastic currently used to control weeds, moderate soil temperature and conserve water in the plant root zone.

“Our goal is to support, through applied science, the development of (crop) production systems that are less reliant on petroleum-based inputs, such as plastic mulch, and synthetic chemicals, such as pesticides,” Miles said.

By Whitney Parsons, CAHNRS Marketing, News, and Educational Communications intern