Tomato Umbrella to Prevent Fungal Disease

Farm: Tumbling Shoals Farm
Operator: Jason Roehrig and Shiloh Avery
Production: Vegetables, Livestock
Markets: farmer’s markets, CSA, restaurants
Location: Millers Creek, Wilkes County, NC

For most small vegetable growers in North Carolina tomatoes are a usual staple crop. The ability to deliver a high quality, disease free tomato can make or break the success of a vegetable farmer’s season. To bite into a flavorful tomato that dribbles with sweet juice and lives a tang in the mouth on a hot summer day is something that farmer’s market folks eagerly await. They scan vendors at the farmer’s markets for any sign that the delicious variety of tomatoes have arrived. Tomato growing poses several risks that the farmer undertakes in an effort to reliably deliver this highly sought over produce item. Farmers fight off the diseases with several tactics like mulching and organic chemicals, like Serenade and copper, without significant results, relying mostly on luck as their best ally. North Carolina’s humid environment can cause an entourage of disease that can decimate a healthy tomato field. Things like fruit rot, fungal diseases, and blight are encouraged by periods of rain or high humidity and can cause irreparable damage very quickly.

At the very base of the Blue Ridge mountains, in the Foothills of Wilkes County, Jason Roehrig and Shiloh Avery at Tumbling Shoals Farm are affected by mountainous weather events that can make vegetable growing, especially tomatoes, a high risk endeavor. These full-time growers rely heavily on a bountiful tomato crop, selling the produce at farmer’s markets in Hickory and Boone, where customers expect a plump, deep red batch of tomatoes.

Tumbling Shoals was established by Jason and Shiloh in 2008 after spending much time in the western Piedmont area of North Carolina. They began farming as a partnership in 2003 in the Pittsboro- Chatham County area, with Shiloh going to Central Carolina Community College to receive certificates in sustainable agriculture. They bought the farm in Wilkes County in 2007 and worked their way into making an income off of farming the land full-time. They serve two farmers markets, provide produce to several local restaurants, and have a 57 member CSA.

Jason and Shiloh applied for a TCRF grant to build infrastructure on their farm that would help reduce risk of disease on their tomato crop. With the support from RAFI, they assembled a ¼ acre field scale structure, designed by Haygrove, that could be moved around the farm to different areas. The structure would serve as an umbrella for the tomatoes, and other crops sensitive to moisture (such as cut flowers), to divert precipitation away from the plants. The system allows Jason and Shiloh to better control the watering regime for the tomato plants while still being able to grow plants in an essentially outdoor environment. This structure is easily confused with a hoophouse, which is mainly for the purposes of season extension by trapping warm air in an enclosed environment. Hoophouses are typically smaller than the “umbrella” structure and aren’t manufactured primarily for disease prevention like the Haygrove structure. Jason and Shiloh plan to move the structure with the tomatoes in accordance to a crop rotation schedule. It is also possible to set up the structure on uneven terrain; a critical factor in farms in mountainous locations like Tumbling Shoals.

Jason and Shiloh hope to gain an estimated annual income between $11,000 and $19,000 from the tomato production. They estimate that their potential profit will be anywhere from $1,700 to $9,700 from the ¼ acre plot with the structure installed.