Grower and Extension Collaboration Yields Production and Management Success for Kansas Tomato Grower
By Jean Stramel
Augusta, Kansas – There is an old adage that things tend to skip generations. That is the case for Todd Griggs, who is now growing tomatoes and other vegetables on the land where his grandparents once had a large truck garden and farm stand near Augusta, which they operated for decades. A good portion of the land was sold by them for development and is now engulfed by the city, but Griggs still has enough room for four high tunnels on the property.
A high tunnel, also known as a hoophouse or polytunnel, is a tunnel or other framed structure that is covered with plastic. High tunnels can protect crops from heat, cold, pests and wind. Use of high tunnels is growing across the country as vegetable producers turn to them for crop protection and to extend the growing season.
Griggs Bros. Farms includes Griggs and his two sons, who are currently away at college but certainly have done their share of labor getting the operation set up. Griggs is building eight more high tunnels in 2016 as demand for locally grown produce is high and he would like to feed into this demand with his high quality produce.
Griggs had stints in construction, warehouse management and as a game guide in Wyoming before coming back to Kansas to farm vegetables, bringing with him valuable skills for building and maintaining growing facilities. When he decided to return to farming in 2010, he started attending workshops for growers and learning about the regulations. That year he grew 2500 tomato plants on two acres. He started out using a fairly conventional system of growing in fields, then made a 180-degree turn when he met K-State Research and Extension, Butler County Horticultural Agent Larry Crouse, who told him about season extension and growing in high tunnels.
“I would not be this far down the road if it weren’t for Extension,” Griggs claims. Working with Crouse, he has been able to expand and improve his production. “It is nice to have someone to evaluate the research or to send photos of pests and diseases.”
After careful consideration, Griggs built his first high tunnel in 2012 from a greenhouse he bought used and re-constructed into a high tunnel. He added three more high tunnels over the next few years. Two of eight additional high tunnels are now being added, and Griggs hopes to be able to utilize cost-share funds through the USDA-NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) for two of the new tunnels.
Griggs Bros. Farms’ major crop is tomatoes, with bell peppers and cucumbers second and third in production. He also grows squash, onions and cabbage in outside fields. He has eight acres available for production between his backyard high tunnels in Augusta and fields he utilizes that are outside of town.
Growing in high tunnels allows Griggs to harvest 12-14 pounds more marketable fruit per plant than he can by using only field production. The system allows for the control of weeds and plant inputs, while using much less space. Griggs and Extension’s Larry Crouse have developed a collaboration which benefits both – Griggs is making money and growing his business in a very efficient system, and Crouse does his part to help fulfill the K-State Research and Extension goal of increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables grown in Kansas. Though Kansas ranks 7th in agricultural exports among states, its citizens buy 90% of their food from outside the state.
According to Griggs, his production system has been fine-tuned and adapted as needed, “with a considerable amount of trial and error,” implementing time-saving steps where he can. He has carefully chosen what to outsource and what to keep in-house.
When growing begins, seeds are started in a propagation chamber with lights, frost blankets and electric heaters around January 10th, or “…when I get back from the Vegetable Growers Conference,” Griggs adds. The greenhouse tables are brought in February 1st for the next stage of growth, then removed from the high tunnels when plants go into the ground and grow bags between March 1 and March 15.
A medium of rice hulls is used in the grow bags and tomatoes are fed a 4-18-38 chemical fertilizer of calcium nitrate and magnesium sulfate (Epsom salt), which is applied automatically for three minutes per hour during the day. Once plants are big enough, a trellis system of re-bar is constructed to support the growing plants. The tomatoes grown directly into the ground are staked using a Florida “stake and weave” system with Honduran pine stakes as supports. Plants are inserted into the soil through slits in the woven ground cloth on the hoop house floors. The sides of the high tunnels can be rolled up for critical air movement. He rotates crops as much as he can from year-to-year to suppress disease and is researching cover crops that might be useful. Shade cloth is used over all high tunnels.
The only real insect pest that is of concern is spider mites, but they usually come late enough in the season and Griggs used to take the attitude of “just let them have it.” K-State Research and Extension Entomologist Raymond Cloyd conducted a site visit and recommended the introduction of predatory spider mites, which feed on the damaging spider mite species. These are ordered through Hydro Gardens, a Greenhouse Supply company. Griggs will also use a Parafin-based spray if needed to control insect pests. Occasionally, early blight or Septoria Leaf Spot have become a problem.
Perhaps not surprisingly, weather and marketing are Griggs’s biggest challenges. Right now he is too big for just farmers markets, but not yet big enough to supply a major grocery chain or distributor. Griggs Bros. Farms sells produce at a roadside stand at the Augusta facility and five farmers markets including El Dorado, Derby, Winfield, Arkansas City and Augusta. Green Acres farmers market in Wichita was scheduled to be added in 2016 but was delayed due to crop damage from hail.
The company utilizes Integrated Pest Management (IPM) according to K-State Research and Extension procedure and follows their recommended GAP standards of “Good Agricultural Practices” for produce production and handling. The GAP certification is required for large distributors so Griggs will be ready if he gets into these larger markets. Griggs Bros. Farms is currently the second largest tomato grower in the state of Kansas.
Griggs Bros. Farms has a Food Safety Plan in place which all employees are trained to follow, and a record keeping system recommended by K-State. The GAP plan provides a guide with Standard Operating Procedures (SOP’s) designated for production and handling, from starting seeds through marketing. These standards are not currently required by the State of Kansas but this is under discussion, and Griggs wants to be ahead of the game and ready if the GAP standards become required in the state.
The lack of population density in his area has caused him to look beyond south central Kansas to sell product. Buyers from eastern and western Kansas, as well as northern Oklahoma, pick up his produce to distribute in their areas and he sells to other growers and roadside stands who need supplemental product. According to Crouse, “Todd’s insistence on quality keeps people buying.”
By working together, grower Todd Griggs and K-State Research and Extension Horticultural Agent Larry Crouse are helping expand the production of produce in Kansas, and increasing availability of locally grown vegetables. Griggs and his sons of Griggs Bros. Farms should have no trouble continuing the Griggs’ legacy his grandparents started in truck farming two generations back. With the markets growing, they should be busy for years to come.
Jean Stramel is a free lance writer, and retired USDA NRCS District Conservationist who lives in Lucas, Ks. She wrote this article as part of KRC’s Community Food Solutions Initiative.