An assistant professor of entomology at Purdue University is leading a $3.7 million study examining the impact of pests in high tunnels, plastic barriers designed to protect crops from environmental factors such as high wind or rainfall. Laura Ingwell says the project aims to understand how pest pressures vary whether the high tunnels are located in urban or rural areas. “The goal is to help growers improve yields and profits, and to improve food security for local communities and sustainable practices for all growers,” said Ingwell.
In an interview with Inside INdiana Business, Ingwell said high tunnels create many benefits such as extending the growing season, which is why pest management is key.
“We need to have a better understand and equip our growers to be prepared because what we can see sometimes is this devastating loss of an entire crop because they weren’t ready for it,” she said. “That’s really what I’ve been focusing on…is understanding when this happens, what are the mechanisms leading to these (pest) outbreaks and how do we communicate that to our growers who are using these structures so that they are prepared and can prevent the damage that may be caused.”
The project is being funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture through its Specialty Crop Research Initiative. Ingwell’s team includes experts from Purdue, the University of Illinois and the University of New Hampshire, along with growers in Indiana, Illinois and the New England area.
Ingwell says she hopes to study a variety of high tunnels, growing practices and crops. High tunnels are mostly used to protect specialty crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers and melons.
During the project, the team will use weather stations to track air and soil temperatures, and humidity inside and outside of the tunnels. They will also directly monitor pests, as well as beneficial insects, through site visits and passive traps.
The team also plans to collect data that will be used to create an online tool for growers. The tool will calculate whether it would be more profitable for growers to invest in an integrated pest management strategy or diversify their crops.
“They really need this support to look at, ‘How much damage is this pest going to inflict in my crop? What does that control measure cost me? And, is it feasible for my bottom dollar?’ We’re talking about really, really small farms here. But, that is a big objective of this project is to really develop these tools so that growers can make informed decisions.”
Ingwell says small farmers are needed more than ever and improving their profits will help keep them growing.
“Food access is very important, and even in Indiana we have places where it is an issue,” she said. “These small and medium farms are providing much needed food in food insecure communities, and high tunnels help them to continue to produce almost all year long in our climate. We want to give them every advantage we can.”
Inside INdiana Business Reporter Wes Mills contributed to this story.