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Affordable Technologies, Increased Farm Profits

In Pennsylvania, as in many areas of the country, it's becoming increasingly difficult for farmers and growers to stay in business. The cost of producing crops continues to climb, while profit margins continue to shrink. These producers need affordable technologies that allow them to increase their on-farm income and reduce costs.
Dennis Peters, Tomato grower, York County, Pa.

Dennis Peters, Tomato grower, York County, Pa.

"The high tunnel brought my tomatoes in approximately three weeks earlier than the ones in the field, and we picked tomatoes up until the week before Christmas. We saved hundreds of dollars in fungicides and insecticides. In the first year, we gained $1,500 above the cost of the tunnel. I'm the first one in the county with a high tunnel, and I will definitely put up more in the future."

One strategy is extending the growing season for crops, allowing producers to increase profits and provide consumers with high-quality, locally grown products that are available over a longer period of time. Another way is to create new plant varieties that are easier to grow and resist pest damage. New products and techniques being developed in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences have the potential to save Pennsylvania farmers millions of dollars each year.

The Payoff

High tunnels

High tunnels are garage-sized frameworks of tubular struts with clear plastic sheeting covering the tops, ends and sides. The enclosed area is cultivated. The tunnel uses the sun's energy to enhance soil and air temperatures inside, extending the effective growing season while protecting crops from insects, diseases and wind, virtually eliminating losses due to crop damage that can run as high as 25 percent. A commercial high tunnel can cost from $1,800 to $3,000, significantly less than the $15,000 to $20,000 needed to build a production greenhouse. Through Penn State's High Tunnel Research and Education program, the largest of its kind in the nation, researchers provide information and training to extension agents and growers on the benefits of using high tunnels for the production of vegetables, small fruits and cut flowers. In the last three years, the program has tripled the number of high tunnels being used to grow horticultural crops in Pennsylvania -- more than 200 new high tunnels have been built as a result of the initiative. An average commercial-sized tunnel, if used to produce two crops during a Pennsylvania growing season, would generate about $6,000 per tunnel -- a projected net return of $900,000 per year statewide.

Tailor-made tomatoes

Tomatoes are big business in Pennsylvania: this $26 million-per-year crop is second only to sweet corn as the state's favorite vegetable. Plant diseases can typically ruin nearly a third of the state's annual crop, so a Penn State plant geneticist developed tomatoes suited to the Commonwealth. This new Penn State Cherry Tomato is a soon-to-be-released hybrid that thrives in Pennsylvania's climate, resists fungal blights, and contains up to three times more lycopene -- the powerful antioxidant that helps prevent many types of cancer and heart disease -- than other cultivated strains. Adoption of the blight-resistant hybrid will allow farmers to drastically reduce their use of costly fungicides, applied 10 to 15 times per growing season, at an estimated annual cost of $1 million.

Cloning for chocolate

Chocolate is big in Pennsylvania's food industry. More chocolate is made here than in any other state -- 1.2 billion pounds per year, worth $5 billion dollars in retail sales. In addition, chocolate production supports the state's dairy industry, using 1.3 million pounds of milk per day -- about 12 percent of the state's milk production. But chocolate also requires cocoa, which is grown in tropical countries. Approximately 40 percent of the annual cocoa crop is lost to plant diseases and insects, resulting in billions of dollars in loss to producers. Pesticides are an imperfect solution, bringing health and environmental risks and damaging ecosystems. Cocoa growers and chocolate makers on both sides of the globe need cocoa varieties that reduce pesticide use while increasing yields. The Penn State cocoa research program and collaborators worldwide have focused on improving quality and quantity of cocoa plants through two strategies: developing superior cocoa plants that produce more flowers, flourish in specific growing climates, and resist diseases and insects; and then sharing these new technologies with developing nations to improve the economic stability of their farmers and the environmental sustainability of their crops. Using a process called "somatic embryogenesis," the team developed a method to successfully clone individual cells from highly productive cocoa trees and grow them into full-sized plants. Penn State's technique has been adopted by nearly every major cocoa research lab in the world.

Dreaming of a Scotch Pine Christmas

Christmas trees loom large in Pennsylvania's bottom line. The most recent USDA Census of Agriculture has the state ranked second nationally in production with 1,453 farms, and third nationally in total revenue with $35,439,000 in annual sales. Scotch Pine reigned for decades as the predominant Christmas tree species grown in Pennsylvania, but declined when insect and disease problems made it more expensive to produce. In addition, consumers were beginning to avoid it because of its stiff needles and tendency to have fat, crooked trunks. Enter scientists in the College of Agricultural Sciences, whose research into the selection and propagation of Scotch Pines resulted in three improved varieties that have been released by Penn State. The hybrid varieties deliver faster growth, better crown form and density, and potentially greater winter hardiness, with improved color and branching habits. They need half as many shearings as ordinary varieties and are harvested a year sooner, and a higher percentage of trees are of saleable quality. The 10-cents-per-seedling higher cost of the improved varieties results in approximately $2.25 more profit per tree for growers at harvest time.

For more information, contact either Penn State Cooperative Extension at 814-863-3438 or the Office of Research and Graduate Education at 814-865-5410, or search for the topic on the College of Agricultural Sciences' website.