Never too old to try something new

Dad with a fawn found in the blueberry fields

March 2012

Dad will be 88 yrs old in August. God bless him, he’s still a man of vigor, smarts and wit. He will never tell you that old age will stop a man, rather it is when a man stops learning that he will be in the ground. It is true, one must never stop learning. Knowledge is like a garden, the more you cultivate it the more it grows.

When we (7 Rivard siblings) embarked on this new farming mission via the business grant, it seemed to open up a door for Dad to put his ideas to work. Let me assure you that he didn’t need our permission or our enthusiasm, he has plenty of that of his own. What I mean is, he took this as a challenge. When I told him I was putting up a hoop house, it wasn’t long before he wanted one too. Of course, he’d been talking about hoop house tomatoes for some time now, toting about how profitable they could be. But he would always remark, “Mother would never go for that. She doesn’t want me making more work for myself.”

Mom enjoying berries with milk

Now, I wouldn’t say she is sold on the idea but I think she is warming up to it, knowing, we (the kids), are all on board with exploring ways to expand the farm’s viability. Dad says, he doing this (growing hoop house tomatoes) for us but I know he will be guarding this project like a mother cow protects her new calf. He is going to do it his way, built with his ideas, his growing methods and with all the bragging rights. You go, Dad!

So in recent months, Dad and I have been sharing a lot of ideas about growing hoop house tomatoes. We have both spent many hours on the internet researching hoop house construction, growing methods and needed supplies when it comes to growing tomatoes inside a hoop house versus growing them in the field. We have found that there is no one way to take on this task. This is not a new idea, places like Backyard Farms have been very successful with their hydro-ponic operation in Madison, Maine. We found there are as many growing methods as there are success stories. This is where Dad and I have chosen different paths.

Simplicity in growing methods is still our number one goal but we hope to reach it in different ways. My approach is to go with what I have to work with… fertile soil, sun power and a cooling breeze, while dad is taking the approach of hydro-ponics and all it’s gadgets.

Hydro-ponics is a system of growing plants, (mainly tomatoes, but peppers, cukes, melons and lettuce can be adapted as well), with or without soil, grown in a bag or container and watered and feed through a timed watering system.

hydroponic tomatoes can be grown in pots or bags in the hoop house

soil-less lettuce grown in PVC pipes filled with water

It may be surprising that Dad, a life-long traditional farmer, is taking a technical approach to growing. But if you know the man, he is known for taking the approach that will lead to the best end result without a ton of labor. So the proof will be on the vine. Research has shown that hoop house tomato crops out produce field crops by a wide margin.

cluster tomatoes are a popular hoop house variety

Tomatoes grown in an unheated hoop house are at least 30 days earlier and twice as productive as field tomatoes, according to trials the past two summers at the University of Missouri. Researchers found that 1,000 square feet of tomatoes (170 plants) would cost $1,073 to grow in a hoop house (high tunnel). Yield was 10 pounds of marketable fruit per plant, or 1,700 pounds. And with sales at $3.00 a pound, the tomatoes would more than pay for themselves and the hydroponic system in the first year.

Dad and I are not looking to strike it rich our first year out but we are both hoping that our hoop house trials will turn out to be worth the effort. However, there are advantages and disadvantages to growing in a hoop house.

One advantage to growing tomatoes in a hoop house is that you can extend the growing season on both ends. Tomatoes can be transplanted in the hoop house in early May (heat at night may be needed). In about 6-8 weeks they will start producing fruit and will continue to produce weekly until October.

The disadvantage is that hoop house tomatoes require daily maintenance. Tomatoes grown in a closed environment will need to be watered daily and fertilized regularly. In addition, they will need to be pruned, clipped to a support line, and harvested. In addition, the plant will need to be lowered every week or two. The lowering allows the plant to continue to grow upward as fruit continues to develop at the bottom of the plant.

Each tomato plant will have a watering/feeding probe that is attached to a water line coming from a holding tank.

Growing tomatoes hydroponically requires the same daily maintenance but also requires careful monitoring of the watering and fertilization system. This system involves a drip irrigation system that waters the plants 5-7 times a day for several minutes at a time. The fertilizer is also feed thru the irrigation system. It really is a complex system.

Dad began building his hoop house in the barn with electrical conduit and wood.

Dad has been working diligently to get the hoop house ready for the arrival of his tomato plants in early May. They are currently being grown in my attic solar garden under the 6 x 6 sky-window.

Finishing the inside of Dad's hoop house.

Wooden hangers that our brother Roland made to hold up the roll-up sides of the hoop house.

Dad's 12 x 24 hoop house.

Here is Roland’s report on the hoop house move:       Dad and I trucked 7 loads of sand from the pit on Monday . After lunch, I graded the fill , then Dad and I moved the hoop house from the barn onto the pad . Tuesday, Uncle Ronald , Dad, Annette and I put the plastic over the house and attached it to each end . Then I went to pick up conduit to build the rolls for each end . In the afternoon, Dad and I taped the rolls to the plastic until the wind picked up , and we had to quit . Wednesday,  we finished putting the tape on none to soon, as the wind picked up again.    R.R.

With the plastic secured, Dad worked on hooking up the fan. The fan will help to cool off the hoop house during the heat of the summer.

When the roll-up sides are rolled up on the outside of the hoop house, the rolls will rest in the ‘S’ hooks designed by Roland. You can see them hanging on the inside of the hoop house in the photo on the left. When in use, they will be turned around to hold the rolls on either side of the hoop house.

In the coming weeks, Dad will be hooking up the drip irrigation system and installing a shutter vent that will work with the fan.

In about 4-6 weeks, the tomatoes will be moved into the hoop house. By July 1st, Dad hopes to have fresh vine tomatoes for sale at the farm.    Diane

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4 thoughts on “Never too old to try something new

  1. Jeff and I look forward to every posting and are very proud of all your efforts. We wish you and your dad well. Joanne and Jeff

    • Not so much this time of year. But in the summer it is a concern. So Jamie is coming up with a new idea using a water drainage system that he built into the back field. More info to come in a future blog.

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