Conventional tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) production in the United States has declined in recent years while growth of organic production has increased rapidly [U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 2008, 2016, 2017]. U.S. organic tomato sales rank second for organic vegetables, and Florida is the second largest producer in the country (USDA, 2017). The direct marketing sector has also grown rapidly, with 45% of U.S. organic farms selling directly to consumers, and over 60% in Florida (USDA, 2015a, 2015b). Yet productivity is a challenge for organic growers, and yield of organic tomato is estimated to be 20% less than conventional yields overall (Seufert et al., 2012).
Tomato production limitations in the humid subtropics are greater than in other regions due to frequent rainfall, prolonged dews, temperature extremes, and severe temperature fluxes (Frey et al., 2020; McAvoy and Ozores-Hampton, 2007). Insect and disease incidence may also be prolonged and severe because moderate winter temperatures may not initiate diapause for some pests or survival structures for some pathogens. High tunnel and grafting technologies may benefit both conventional and organic tomato growers in mitigating these biotic and abiotic factors and achieving high-quality fresh market tomato production in the subtropics. The beneficial impact may be greater for organic production systems for which management tools tend to be more limited and the effectiveness and longevity may be reduced.
Polyethylene-covered high tunnel structures, also called hoop houses, can offer a moderate level of environmental protection in crop production and facilitate season extension (Lamont, 2005, 2009). Tomato is the most commonly grown crop in high tunnels worldwide (Carey et al., 2009; Janke et al., 2017; Lamont, 2009). High tunnel adoption by Florida growers for horticultural crop production has increased dramatically since 2001 (Frey et al., 2020; Hochmuth and Toro, 2014), while high tunnel vegetable crop research in Florida is limited.
Although reduction of leaf wetness and extension of harvest season may be the most significant benefits of high tunnels in the subtropics, high tunnels can also moderate drastic temperature fluctuations and crop-limiting temperature extremes, thus reducing crop stress and increasing productivity (Frey et al., 2020; Jayalath et al., 2017; Rogers and Wszelaki, 2012). Biotic stress reduction has been reported in high tunnel tomato production, including foliar diseases such as early blight (Alternaria solani) and bacterial speck (Pseudomonas syringae pv. tomato), as well as some insect pests (Antignus et al., 1996; Healy et al., 2017; O’Connell et al., 2012; Waiganjo et al., 2013). The use of ultraviolet-absorbing plastics and the resultant rainwater protection may reduce the degradation or removal of pesticide residues and reduce nutrient leaching, increasing the pesticide efficacy and nutrient efficiency of the growing system (Leach et al., 2017).
High tunnel abiotic and biotic stress amelioration may improve tomato plant growth characteristics, including fruit size and number, and total and marketable yields (Carey et al., 2009; Healy et al., 2017; O’Connell et al., 2012). Enhanced aesthetic appeal of high tunnel tomatoes compared with open field fruit, including improved color and color uniformity, has also been reported (Talavera-Bianchi et al., 2010). These effects, along with season extension, may result in higher premium prices, particularly for direct market growers, while reducing the risk of losses compared with open field conditions (Blomgren and Frisch, 2007; O’Connell et al., 2012). Although substantial information is available from high tunnel trials in temperate regions, systematic research of high tunnel production is scarce in subtropical growing systems, where conducive environments lead to persistent disease and pest problems.
Grafting as a management tool has been increasingly used in tomato production in the United States, often targeting the suppression of diseases caused by soilborne pathogens such as Fusarium sp. and root-knot nematodes [RKN (Meloidogyne sp.)], which are widespread in the subtropics (Frey et al., 2020; Guan et al., 2012; King et al., 2008). Tomato grafting has the potential to increase crop vigor, as measured by an increase in stem diameter, leaf area, and above- and below-ground biomass (Öztekin and Tüzel, 2017; Rahmatian et al., 2014). Tomato marketable and total yields, as well as average fruit weight, may increase compared with fruit from nongrafted plants (Barrett et al., 2012; Djidonou et al., 2013; Rahmatian et al., 2014; Rivard et al., 2012; Savvas et al., 2010). With appropriate rootstock selection, grafting may improve water- and nitrogen-use efficiency, enhance salinity tolerance, and reduce blossom end rot (BER), the most common preharvest tomato physiological disorder (Di Gioia et al., 2013; Djidonou et al., 2013; Fan et al., 2011; Krumbein and Schwarz, 2013). Although tomato grafting could potentially address many challenges faced by tomato growers in the subtropics, the high cost associated with the use of grafted plants demands production systems that maximize grafting benefits, such as by extending the harvest season and ameliorating detrimental microclimate effects.
This study was therefore designed to compare grafted and nongrafted organic tomato production in side-by-side open-field and high-tunnel systems. The objectives of this study were to determine high tunnel and grafting effects on plant growth characteristics and yield performance, including total and marketable yield components, and the characteristics that lead to unmarketability.
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