Specialty crop producers, high tunnel


Organic vegetable production within high tunnels allows for an extended growing season, crop protection, and environmental control. The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) standards mandate evidence that the soil has been maintained and improved over the course of production. Previous studies have indicated the potential of cover crops for reducing competitive vegetation, and improving soil quality, thus resulting in greater plant growth, nutrient uptake, and yield. However, there has been limited work in the confines of high tunnels as part of a tunnel-system rotation. Ten nitrogen-fixing and ten non-legume cover crops were established under a high tunnel and evaluated for their effects on the yield of ‘De Cicco’ broccoli (Brassica oleracea L. var. italica) and ‘Champion’ collards (Brassica oleracea L. var. acephala), aboveground biomass, and plant C and N contents. All treatments received recommended levels of appropriate certified organic fertilizers, water status was maintained, and vegetables received standard organic maintenance for insects and disease. The cover crops hairy indigo (Indigofera hirsuta L.), Catjang cowpea (Viana unguicalata L.), and Sunn hemp (Crotalaria juncea L.) consistently produced higher yields than Tifleaf III hybrid pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum L.), Dairymaster brown midrib (BMR) hybrid grain sorghum (Sorghum spp.), and Wild Game Food sorghum (Sorghum bicolor L.). Nitrogenfixing legumes produced horticulturally significantly higher yields than the non-nitrogen-fixing grass species. This experiment demonstrated that not all cover crops are equal; they created variation in response. Cover crops provide a viable option for organic producers to maintain or improve soil quality over the course of production.