Extending the profit window: Minimize risks and maximize profit with early harvest

Editor’s note: This article is from the archives of the MSU Crop Advisory Team Alerts. Check the label of any pesticide referenced to ensure your use is included.

Vegetable growers in regions with a temperate climate like Michigan do not have a lot of flexibility because climatic conditions restrict the growing season to a very narrow window. Because of this narrow window of production, most crops reach maturity at the same time, harvest is synchronized, and all growers hit the market at the same time. The direct consequence of the peak in production is a drop in the price paid to growers and that is regardless of their actual input costs.

Experienced growers indicate that their “home runs” are made either early or late in the season. Therefore, they have developed strategies to extend those profit windows. This article deals mainly with season extension strategies for earliness. Earliness usually involves planting the crop earlier than the rest of the industry. Therefore growers who shoot for earliness take the risk of crop damage from late frost. Here are a few tips that could help minimize the risk of frost damage when shooting for earliness.

  1. Avoid planting in low spots of the field. Frost damage usually occurs first in the low spots of the field. Because cold air is heavier than hot air, cold air settles down and flows like water while the hot air rises.
  2. Use frost tolerant species. Plant frost tolerant species when the risk of frost is highest.
  3. Use transplants. Transplants grown in the greenhouse will give a head start when planted in the field. Transplants should be hardened off adequately to minimize transplant shock in the field.
  4. Use short cycle varieties. Early varieties could mature a few days (or weeks) earlier than conventional varieties. A better price could offset other aspects like reduced yield.
  5. Use black plastic mulch. Raised beds covered with black plastic mulch will warm the soil and speed up plant growth and maturity. Growers could gain a couple of days in earliness and also benefit from better quality of produce with plastic mulch.
  6. Use row covers. Row covers increase air temperature around the crop. It is important to know that row covers do not provide full protection against frost damage. (Read article on row covers).
  7. Avoid spots with poor drainage. Since water normally flows downward, chances are that field spots that are usually flooded are also low spots where cold air will settle.
  8. Be ready for irrigation. Use overhead irrigation to prevent the formation of ice on plant tissue.
  9. Follow weather advisory reports. Frost advisory information is available at local and regional weather stations. See Jeff Andresen’s article on frost.

Extension of profit windows with season extension strategies. Curves represent hypothetical production over time.
Profit window

Dr. Ngouajio’s work is funded in part by MSU‘s AgBioResearch.

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