This past October I visited with a group of high school students from Mill Creek, Oklahoma. The kids were spending a day at the Noble Research Institute touring the Plant Biology Division and Headquarters Farm Horticulture Center. While touring the horticulture center, I asked them why Oklahoma didn't have a fruit and vegetable industry similar to California's. Some of their responses included poor soil, labor shortages, and limited markets. Although significant, I was quick to point out these limitations were not of primary importance.
I shared with the kids how adverse weather conditions frustrate the efforts of fruit and vegetable growers on an annual basis. Bottom line, the difference between California's central valley and the Red River valley are weather extremes. From late spring and early fall, freezes to torrential rain and hail storms, Oklahoma's weather is good at throwing knockout punches.
To prove my point, we moved from the confines of the shop building out into the plot area to view some of the structures designed to minimize the effects of weather extremes. We looked at windbreaks and raised beds and discussed how these devices helped moderate the effects of wind and rain. As we walked through the hoop house, I explained how the structure enabled us to extend the growing season for many crops such as peppers, tomatoes, and cucurbits. As an added benefit, I explained how the structure protected crops from wind, rain, and yes, even hail.
I shared my experience of being trapped in the hoop house during a hail storm. On September 20, while checking on our hoop-house tomato crop, a storm, unusually strong for that time of the year, hit without warning. Not being able to get to my truck because of the hail, I did not have much choice but to remain in the house and wait it out. Things got a little dicey when hail stones driven by 70 mph winds started coming through the plastic. Fortunately the storm was short lived and both the structure and I escaped serious damage.
The moral of this story avoid hoop houses during stormy weather. What I stressed to the kids is that the hoop house structure did its job. It protected the tomato crop (and yours truly) from the ravages of extreme weather. Seeing is believing! Will Oklahoma's fruit and vegetable industry ever rival California's? Not likely; however, our situation is not hopeless. This region of the country is blessed with a long growing season, abundant natural resources, a work force possessing a strong work ethic, and a central geographic location, all key components necessary for a sustainable fruit and vegetable industry.
Much progress has been made overcoming the limitations imposed by weather extremes. Much more progress needs to be made. Can we continue to develop cost effective technology which will minimize risk due to adverse weather? Yes, I believe so. As with most worthwhile endeavors, progress won't necessarily come easy. Easy or not, at the Noble Research Institute we are committed to making progress.