High Tunnels, Small Farms, And Strawberries

Saylor’s Farm faces the same challenges most smaller growers do — finding affordable labor, grappling with the weather, and just making the economics of a small farming operation work. But owner John Saylor is an experimenter, and he’s turning that natural curiosity into a solution that produces highly marketable and profitable onions, lettuce, herbs and, especially, strawberries.

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“I’ve always had an interest in hydroponics and one of the main crops I was interested in was strawberries,” he says. “We’ve been researching strawberry production in tunnels for about 10 years, and I started getting serious about it the last couple of years.”

The Sligo, PA, operation shifted 30 acres of outdoor strawberry production to three 80-by-18-foot high tunnels with 3,000 plants per structure. The result is a great-tasting, much earlier, longer-season crop that’s commanding excellent prices. In fact, Saylor’s Farm sells out of strawberries every day from May through November at $7 a quart.

How Saylor’s Farm Does It

Saylor knew little about hydroponics, so he started small and learned by trial and error along the way. For those of you who are less do-it-yourselfers, affordable high tunnels and growing systems are readily available from industry suppliers, but Saylor chose to build his structures and hydroponic set up himself.

“We’re just using off-the-shelf plumbing,” he says. “We have 4-inch PVC pipe, and drill 3-inch holes with roughly 1.5-inch spacing between the holes. Through our research we discovered we had to get the berries up out of the water so we plant them in a 10-inch perlite bag. That gets the strawberries well above the water level. Water wicks up through cut slits at the bottom of the bag. That makes a pretty good atmosphere for the roots.”

Saylor feeds the crop with a combination of nutrient-rich pond water, a hydroponic fertilizer mix, calcium nitrate and Epsom salts.

“Our farm pond has a lot of fish in it, so the water has nutrients before we add anything to it. We feed at one end and the water flows to the other end and back to a 0.1-horsepower circulating pump. When that’s depleted we add to the tank and put in a fertilizer mix at about 1.5 ppm and watch that we don’t get it too rich.”

Saylor has done some experimenting to find the right strawberries for his growing conditions. Daylight-neutral varieties have been the most successful so far. He purchases most of his plants from Nourse Farms.

“San Andreas was the last one we planted and it started coming into bearing in early August. That’s shown promise. Albion has been a good one for us, and another one bred in Spain,  Amandine, has very good promise. It sets fruit up very high — the blossoms are 10 to 12 inches above the base. They pollinate quite easily and they don’t monkey face as much,” he says.

Production costs are always a concern, so Saylor keeps energy expenses to a minimum. A single small gas space heater in one house helps get plants started early in the season and sets the pace for the next houses.

“It’s just big enough to maintain frost-free temperatures. Strawberries do quite well at 32°F or 34°F,” he says.

Most cooling is passive, with just one fan in the first house. The other houses have double doors at each end and the sides pull up for ventilation.

Early Start, Longer Season

The benefits of the system have been clear, Saylor says, beginning with an early crop — much earlier than he normally would be starting strawberries in Western Pennsylvania.

“We start the crop around February. Outside we wouldn’t plant until the last part of April to the middle of May,” he says. “We usually start picking a month to six weeks earlier than outside. In the past, if we didn’t plant until the first of May we weren’t picking until the middle of July.”

In-season production costs have been significantly reduced with the new system. Once the high tunnel hydroponic system is set up, Saylor says the labor required is much less than for a crop in the field.

“In the greenhouse we haven’t had to go to any spray systems to eliminate insect problems, mildew, or leaf diseases,” he says. “In a wet year like this you can plant and farm while it’s raining and still maintain the crop.”

Saylor says he’d like to add more tunnels as revenues grow. At three houses and 9,000 plants, he’s selling all the strawberries he can harvest.

“We’re sold out by dinnertime every day. We sell most of them at our own market, and we have to really scramble to get enough to take to the farmers’ market on Saturdays,” he says.

And those sales are at a premium. “We have no trouble getting double what we were getting for strawberries in the field. The size is not as good as what you’ll see out of California but the flavor is much better. For daylight-neutral varieties, the size is as good as what we were seeing in the field.”

Advice For Other Growers

Saylor has gotten some help along the way from Pennsylvania State University and the University of Arkansas, but he’s done most of the development work for this system on his own. Here’s his advice for other small growers thinking about trying high tunnel hydroponic strawberries:

Find the right varieties for your situation. “Our biggest thing is hunting for varieties that will stand the heat; the high tunnels get quite warm. Everbearing and daylight-neutral plants don’t hold over as well as the June bearing, so you basically have to replace them every year,” he says.

Find the best medium. “Perlite has been the best rooting base for us so far,” he says. “We tried coconut fiber and found if you don’t work with a company that washes all of the salt out, your plants won’t do well in it.”

Keep plants above the water. “We used to try to get them down where the water was quite high on the root system and we would have quite a few failures. We went to the plastic bags with perlite and that eliminated the problem,” Saylor says.

Watch your costs. “We can plant one house in one day with two people, and we’re learning how to find the shortcuts,” he says. “The initial cost is your biggest problem. Expect about three years to bring it out of the red.Any extra costs you put in you have to try and get those back somehow. We’re thinking about using solar panels to run our pumps.”

Go slow. “Things work differently for everybody,” he says. “Figure out what works for you.”