TTU Featured Researcher: Growing awesome heirlooms

Posted by Lori Shull - Monday, November 07 2011

thumb Michael_BestGrowing heirlooms in a tunnel

Research summary:

TTU professor of agricultural economics Michael Best is growing seven varieties of heirloom tomato under a plastic canopy as well as in an open field. The experiment is to see if it is economically feasible to grow the popular and expensive tomatoes under the plastic, where they will be more protected but where the crop yield is also expected to be reduced because of less air, and pollen, flowing around the plants.


Lindsey White, '10. Working with him through AmeriCorps.

Research procedure, findings:

Best and White have planted seven varieties of heirloom tomatoes, putting 100 plants each in an open field and under a high tunnel, which is essentially a canopy of plastic sheeting to keep the plants covered. They are collecting preliminary data about how the different varieties grow in both conditions, to find out if it is economically feasible to grow heirloom tomatoes, which are more fragile than the common hybrid varieties, in the tunnels. They expect that the yield will drop under the tunnel because of altered airflows affecting pollination, but hope to find that the quality of the tomato is so better because of the protection. High tunnels enable farmers to pick their produce early, thereby allowing them to sell their products before they are generally available and get higher prices.

Research application:

The point of the research is to determine the yield and quality of the high tunnel grown tomatoes verses the traditional method.

"What we’re looking for is to see if it’s worthwhile economically for farmers to put this plastic sheeting up to protect the tomatoes," Best said.


$5,000 from the TTU research office.


Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center, Inc.

What motivates you to do this research?

"This is something I've wanted to do for five or six years. I want to show other farmers how to do this kind of thing. It's a specialty crop that farmers in this region can make money on. I want to do research on them to try to show that and then get these farmers involved in producing that crop for the people in the area."

"Tomatoes do pretty well in terms of income. I'm an economist by training and I like to see farmers do well and I like to work on issues that might help farmers do a little bit better."

What are your future plans?

"The point of this really is to go after a bigger grant to expand what we're doing. We've got 200 plants total, 100 inside and 100 outside and seven varieties. It's very small. We also want to see which varieties are good to grow in a high tunnel."

"In today's climate, as competitive as grant seeking is, we have to have data already before we go for a bigger grant."

Is this research integrated into classroom instruction?

"I talk about it in class all the time: this is how you grow this, this is how you grow that."

What have been the biggest challenges you've faced in this area?

"Just like all farming operations, we had a few problems. We had a hailstorm, a windstorm and then a fungus due to all the dampness when we planted the tomatoes. We lost almost every one of our outdoor tomatoes and we have seven varieties. That's an issue when you farm and that's an issue when you do research with agricultural products."

What would your dream job be, using this research?

"My dream research project would have to have something to do with farmers markets, having grown up working with them and having them in my life for more than 30 years. I would like to do research on what makes a farmers market successful, to determine how rules, regulations, location, size and demographics of the customers and their attitudes toward local products affect the success of markets across the country."

"Farmers markets are becoming more popular, however some have been around for 30 years or more. It would be nice to find out how the successful ones have been set up and what lessons have been learned over the years so it can be shared with people who are trying to establish a farmers market."


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