Ripe for the Picking: Strawberry initiative seeks to expand nationwide production

garcia-strawberries

HIGH TUNNEL — Fruit and nut specialist Elena Garciashows off strawberry plants fruiting in late December in high tunnels of plastic sheeting over a metal frame. The strawberries will flower and fruit as long as temperatures are between 40 and 85° F.

Anyone who looked around Arkansas in recent years for strawberry production could find it only by looking hard enough. The state grew about 63 acres of strawberries in 2012, according to a federal agricultural census. The strawberries that Arkansas shoppers buy at the store are more likely to come from Cali- fornia, Florida or another country. Small wonder: California grew more than 40,000 acres expanding productionand Florida grew more than 11,000 acres of the crop.

No other state comes close to those top two in strawberry production, but the gap may narrow a bit in coming years for Arkansas and several other states. Expand- ing production nationwide and bringing it closer to the consumers is the goal of a two-year effort by the National Strawberry Sustainability Initiative that wraps up in July 2015.

“We are net importers of strawberries in the U.S. We import strawberries from Mexico and other countries because we don’t meet the demand in the U.S.,” explained Curt Rom, a University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture horticulture professor who is directing the strawberry initiative for the Division’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Sustainability. The initiative covers 26 projects by research and extension personnel in 13 states and has been supported by $4.05 million in grants from the Walmart Foundation.

“Right now, strawberry demand is exceeding the production capability of California and Florida,” Rom continued. “California and Florida produce 98 percent of the strawberries in the U.S. North Carolina produces 1 percent. All the other states combine for 1 percent.”

That means if Arkansas and many other states each increased their strawberry production tenfold, it still wouldn’t have a big impact on the volume nationally. But if production is expanded beyond the current primary production centers, the added output would complement the exist- ing industry.

“Sustainability would be increased by reducing travel distance and time (thus reducing spoilage), using new technologies to extend the range of harvest dates and implementing new pest management and water-saving irrigation technologies,” said a report from the strawberry initiative summarizing its first year. Its goal “is to move science and technology for sustainable strawberry production out of laboratories and experiment stations and onto the farms of straw- berry growers.”

Longer growing seasons

strawberries in hand

trawberries grown in high tunnels in mid-March are as delectable as those grown outdoors in the spring.

Through the first half of the 20th century, Arkansas had a bigger strawberry industry than in recent years and was a major producer nationally. But the appearance of two insects — the strawberry crown borer and the strawberry weevil — devastated crops. Meanwhile, slow rail and truck transport of strawberries to distant points resulted in the arrival of strawberries that had deteriorated in quality during the trip.

The crop fell victim to market timing and new varieties as the California and Florida berry industry was developing, Rom explained. “The Arkansas crop came right in the middle of the national crop. We weren’t early and we weren’t late, which meant that our crop was harvested at the time the market was flooded, so the price was low.”

The climate in California and Florida along with new varieties developed there allow for almost year-round production, something that hasn’t been possible in the rest of the country until lately. Along came high tunnels, unheated greenhouses covered with plastic that made growing strawberries something that could be done beyond springtime.

“If we put strawberries in a high tunnel, we can go from having a 30-day crop to a four- or five-month crop in Arkansas, going from 6,000 pounds per acre to 20,000 to 30,000 pounds an acre,” Rom said. The first phase of the straw- berry initiative was designed to demonstrate the technology to farmers across the country.

hydroponic strawberries

FIELD OBSERVATIONS — Mike Evans (far left) explains a hydroponic system called “nutrient film technique” for greenhouse strawberry production.

The personnel at the 13 universities reached the people. They delivered their information in100 workshops for the public and in 60 presen-tations to technical and scientific groups. They produced 56 demonstration videos for online viewing. Their effort reached 5,000 growers and industry representatives, 1,500 extension agents and consultants and more than 300,000 con-sumers, growers, advisers, educators, scientists and students.

Several research theses and dissertations have emerged and provided the impetus for other state and national grants. Several online resources and new apps were created to help growers in producing strawberries across the U.S. Additionally, the program produced an award-winning e-book, “Moving the Needle,” which provides project progress and complete links to resources.

Elena Garcia was among those who took her work to the high tunnels to show the people how it’s done. Garcia, an extension horticulture professor, led one of three strawberry initiative projects in Arkansas. Her group built high tunnels and field plots in Fayetteville and Clarksville and showed them to potential growers at strawberry production workshops.

“We have several small acreage producers in the area that are growing strawberries in tunnels,” Garcia said. “They are farmers’ market vendors. The farmers market opens in April when strawberries are scarce.It would be good if they were able to move the season up a month and start getting production in April from strawberries.”

After the initial investment in construction cost,a producer needs to replace the plastic once every five years. Low tunnels have less wasted space and lower construction costs. Garcia said the team is analyzing the costs of field production versus tunnel production. Team member Jennie Popp, professor of agricultural economics and agribusiness, has developed a decision-making tool to help growers evaluate costs of production and appropriate pricing.

Going local nationally

Commercial strawberry producers generally grow their crop in the ground or in field situations in beds. To help them extend their growing season, Division of Agriculture horticulture professor Mike Evans devoted his part of the strawberry initiative to demonstrating how to grow strawberries using hydroponic troughs in high tunnels and greenhouses. His team collaborated with University of Arizona horticulturists to produce 12 instruction videos showing how to build and use hydroponic systems and sponsored two field days in Fayetteville at the University of Arkansas.

The government doesn’t track specific information on the use of strawberry hydroponic systems and other specialty crops, but Evans said there is anecdotal evidence that interest is rising.

pest control screens

PEST CONTROL — Project collaborator Donn Johnson conducted research on using screens to exclude pests such as the spotted wing drosophila

Local food producers who want to keep stores supplied with a product have realized that they need alternatives to traditional produc- tion methods if they want to keep products coming more than just a few months of the year. “A lot of our local producers have realized that they have to have that capacity so that in those off seasons they can grow greens, maybe strawberries, experiment with blackberries or tomatoes,” Evans said.

In eastern Arkansas, Leonard Githinji of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff agriculture faculty led the establishment of sites in Jefferson, Lee and Lonoke counties to demonstrate sustainable practices for straw- berry production. The various workshops covered extending the season by using high tunnels, soil management, integrated pest management and practices to reduce contamination.

strawberry book Elena Garcia's Youtube channel mike Evan's youtube channel

Rom said the information gathered for the strawberry initiative across the country shows that more research is needed on how to make the crop sustainable at site-specific locations. Project leaders met in Fayetteville in May 2014 after nearly a year of work to review progress and discuss the crop’s future nationally. The projects explored new production systems for local and regional markets, technologies for improved water conservation, new cultivars for alternative markets, the use of distribution management to reduce product loss and several other topics. Rom, who has made site visits to the projects across the U.S., said there is a growing “strawberry fever” in many states as farmers explore ways to save money for an increasingly popular crop among consumers looking for ways to live better.

Strawberry growers, according to the initiative’s summary report, now have tools to build systems that will provide a greater supply of the nutritious and healthy crop. But more work remains.

“Our hypothesis was we thought we knew enough to move it for- ward,” Rom said. “We have, but in that process we learned that there’s more to learn. We learned what we didn’t know. But we do know the strawberry business will grow.”

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