Phase I Final Reports Due Next Week

Phase I is nearing completion and project leaders are reminded that final reports are due next week on August 15th. Thank you for your hard work, and we look forward to reading about what you discovered in the push for sustainable strawberries.

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Hydroponic Strawberry YouTube Channel

Commercial growers now have free access to hydroponic strawberry start-up advice on YouTube, thanks to NSSI researchers. This collaboration between projects at the University of Arkansas and the University of Arizona demonstrates the mechanisms implemented on hydroponic and soilless setups at both locations.

The goal of this project was to provide a free portal to teach commercial strawberry growers how to build, manage, and use hydroponic systems in the production of strawberries. By using soilless and hydroponic systems to produce strawberries, growers are able to manage water and fertilizer more effectively. Additionally, many issues that are common in field-grown operations (soil sterilization/disinfestation, weed control, runoff) are eliminated.

You can view the Introduction video here.

The videos are each about 3-6.5 minutes in length and cover topics such as cultivar selection, fertilizer distribution equipment, pest and disease management, and harvesting.

Want to learn more about hydroponic strawberries? Then watch the rest of the videos at the project’s YouTube channel:

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Walmart Foundation’s $1.05 Million Donation Fuels Second Phase of Strawberry Initiative

By Mary Hightower, U of A System Division of Agriculture

July 17, 2014

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Ripening in mid-winter. Taking root in old cotton acres. Growing organic in conventional farms. America’s favorite berry is finding itself in places it’s never been before thanks to research, creativity and a donation from the world’s largest retailer.

Each of these new directions was grown from a $3 million donation from the Walmart Foundation to the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Sustainability, known as CARS. Last year’s donation gave birth to the National Strawberry Sustainability Initiative and would fuel 20 research projects in 13 states.

All of the innovations have one aim: to provide U.S. consumers with the freshest berries raised in the most sustainable way possible everywhere they’re grown, from small family farms to cooperatives. It’s no small target either. Strawberry production was valued at $2.4 billion in 2012, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service. And USDA says they are the fifth favorite fruit among American consumers, prized for its sweet taste and good-for-you versatility in the kitchen.

“At Walmart we support the issues our customers and communities care about most –sustainability being one of them,” said Dorn Wenninger, Vice President of Produce and Floral, Walmart. “We’re excited to help the National Strawberry Sustainability Initiative enter Phase II where we’ll see innovation at work in the fields. As a result, we’ll have a better understanding of how to sustainably increase production and supply of one of our nation’s favorite fruits.”

New donation, new phase

A new $1.05 million donation from the Walmart Foundation is providing fuel for some of the researchers to prove their concepts in the field. From a competitive grants process, six projects working in nine states emerged to share $845,000 in funding from the new donation.

“If last year’s work was all about exploration and innovation, Phase II moves the initiative ‘From Demonstration to Implementation’,” said Curt Rom, horticulture director for CARS.

In May, the project team members presented their research at a summit held at Fayetteville’s Chancellor Hotel.

“There was an obvious energy in the room with the reports and the conference created strong synergy among the cooperators,” Rom said. “This program has clearly made significant impacts that will continue to grow. I feel certain that we will see more, better, higher quality strawberries which have been sustainably produced locally, regionally, and nationally enter our markets.”

Learning from Phase I

Michelle Schroeder-Moreno, associate professor of Agroecology at North Carolina State University, has one of the six projects that are moving into the second phase. Her team is focused on sustainable soil and pest management, in part taking practices used in organic growing systems and using them in conventional berry growing.

“Phase II is what I’m really excited about. It’s not just doing the research, but also taking it into the adoption process,” she said. The first year’s project taught her team some key lessons. “We are learning from it. We’re not talking about traditional research – here’s a report for another journal. It’s ‘how do we make it usable. This is what we need to be doing more of.”

Taking a chance on berries

Russ Wallace, associate professor and extension horticulturist at Texas A&M, leads another of the six projects. His project works both ends of the strawberry spectrum in trying to increase the number of growers and encourage consumers to buy locally grown berries.

“Our Phase II project will add new growers willing to give strawberries a try on a small scale, and will also connect AgriLife Extension horticulture agents with growers in their counties to enable both the growers and the agent to gain experience growing strawberries,” he said.

Some of the new growers have turned cotton acreage into homes for high tunnels. “We’ll never replace cotton, but growers are looking for other ways to get cash,” Wallace said.

“Our eventual goal is to greatly increase our state’s current strawberry production acreage, now only at about 150 acres, to the point where we can all easily enjoy what could well become a uniquely Texas treat,” he said.

The phase II projects are:

  • “Sustainable Soil Management Practices for Strawberries: Diverse Approaches for Facilitating Adoption.” Awarded $103,784 in funding. Led by Michelle Schroeder-Moreno, assistant professor-North Carolina State University; and Amanda McWhirt, PhD student, NCSU.
  • “Implementing Low-Cost Wireless Sensor Networks for Irrigation, Nutrient Management and Frost Protection of Strawberry.” Awarded $150,000. Led by John Lea-Cox, professor, University of Maryland, Rouse, Schlagel.
  • “Growing Strawberries: A Public-Private Partnership.” Awarded $146,805. Led by Elena Garcia, Donn Johnson, Michael Evans, Kristen Gibson, Matt Sheckels, David Dickey, Clyde Fenton. This proposal addresses the growing interest in revitalizing the fruit industry in Arkansas, especially strawberry production in Washington and Boone County Arkansas. In phase I, Garcia used high tunnels to grow wintertime strawberries.
  • “Addressing Grower-Identified Priorities in Organic Strawberry Cropping Systems in the Southeastern US.” Awarded $200,000. Led by Carlene Chase, Michkie Swisher, Xin Zhao, Oscar Liburd, Zhifeng Gao, Sanjun Gu, Sambav, Marty Mesh. Florida and North Carolina. The goal of this multidisciplinary, integrated, research and extension project is to promote the expansion of organic strawberry production in the southeastern U.S.
  • “Increasing Grower Market Potential and Consumer Preference for Locally-Grown Strawberries through Strategic Extension Programming in Texas.” Funding: $92,267. Led by Team: Russ Wallace, Peter Ampim, Juan Anciso, Joe Masabni and Larry Stein. The proposed projects will not only help to determine whether small-acreage strawberry production can expand more widely across the state, but also determine whether growers are willing to take the risks of a new crop enterprise.
  • “On-Farm Performance and Nutrient Requirements of New Strawberry Varieties for the Eastern United States.” Awarded $125,000. Led by Peter Niztsche, William Hlubik, Butraigo, Handley, Demachak, Newell. Project covers New Jersey, Maryland, Maine, Pennsylvania.

Learn more about the National Sustainable Strawberry Initiative at

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Phase I Quarterly Reports Due Next Week

This is a reminder to current NSSI Phase I projects that 4th Quarter Reports are due  on July 15. Please log in at to update us on your work.

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Breeding Battle Threatens Key Source Of California Strawberries

This story was originally published on on July 1, 2014. The original article can be found at


A flat of Albion strawberries at the Bob Jones Ranch fruit stand near Oxnard, Calif.

A flat of Albion strawberries at the Bob Jones Ranch fruit stand near Oxnard, Calif. Photo by Zumapress/Corbis.

 In California, a legal skirmish has erupted over strawberries — or rather, over strawberry breeding.

To be absolutely precise, the battle is about strawberry breeding at the University of California, Davis. This is more important than it might sound. More than half of all strawberries in the supermarket trace their ancestry to breeding plots at UC Davis.

The strawberry breeders at UC Davis, who’ve led that program for decades, are leaving the university to carry on their work at a new private company.

The California Strawberry Commission, which represents farmers, is now suing the university, accusing it of betraying a public trust. The commission wants assurances that UC Davis will keep this public breeding program alive, and not hand it over “to private financial interests.”

Before getting into the details of this dispute, it’s worth a little background on strawberry breeding itself, and where the modern strawberry came from.

“It’s a pretty amazing story,” says Jim Hancock, a professor of horticulture and a berry breeder at Michigan State University. It begins with two different berry plants growing in completely different parts of the world a few hundred years ago.

One plant in Chile produced nice big fruit that were kind of bland. The other, in the eastern United States, had berries that were bright red and bursting with flavor, but tiny.

Both species were picked up by European collectors — in the case of the Chilean plant, by a French spy — and ended up close to each other in a French botanical garden.

There, they made babies. “It was a perfect combination,” says Hancock. The accidental hybrid that resulted from this cross-pollination produced fruit that was big, red and tasted great. The strawberry was born.

It could still be improved, and that’s where plant breeders came in, crossing different plants, selecting the best offspring, and creating ever-better berries.

“The No. 1 thing is probably having the ability to be picked, packed and shipped all the way across the United States and still arrive in good condition,” says Tom Sjulin, another breeder, who worked for many years for Driscoll’s Strawberry Associates, one of the best-known names in strawberries.

There’s one thing that Hancock and Sjulin don’t mention at first: taste.

That’s a bit of a sore subject in the strawberry community. “Being a strawberry breeder, I shouldn’t admit this, but I think for a long time, taste was going down,” says Hancock.

Yet he and Sjulin both insist that strawberry taste has made a comeback in recent years.

He shows me one that’s big, firm enough to travel thousands of miles, and has amazing flavor. It’s the Albion variety, and it was created at UC Davis.

Which brings us back to that controversy.

California has the perfect climate for growing strawberries, and UC Davis, as the leading agricultural university in the state, began breeding strawberries almost a century ago. It’s still the most important center of strawberry breeding in the country, although private companies, such as Driscoll’s, have gotten into the business, too.

The UC Davis program actually operates a lot like a private company, patenting new varieties and collecting millions of dollars in royalties from strawberry growers. (I’ll have more about that in a later post.)

On the other hand, says Sjulin, private companies often don’t provide their varieties to everyone. UC Davis does. Any strawberry grower can buy them and grow them. “There are still a lot of growers in California who really depend on that University of California program continuing as is, and anything that would disrupt that is cause for great concern, as you can imagine,” he says.

As the current strawberry breeders at UC Davis prepare to leave, some fear that this program will falter, interrupting the supply of new varieties to strawberry growers.

Douglas Shaw, a UC Davis plant science professor, walks through strawberry fields in Watsonville, Calif., in April. He runs a strawberry growing and test facility there.

Douglas Shaw, a UC Davis plant science professor, walks through strawberry fields in Watsonville, Calif., in April. He runs a strawberry growing and test facility there. Photo by Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times.

Douglas Shaw, a UC Davis plant science professor, walks through strawberry fields in Watsonville, Calif., in April. He runs a strawberry growing and test facility there.

Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times

The man at the center of this controversy is Douglas Shaw, who has been in charge of UC Davis’ breeding program and now plans to go private.

In an e-mail to NPR, Shaw wrote that he is not leaving the university to earn more money. He’s already paid very well. He and a handful of co-workers get about 30 percent of the royalties earned by the UC Davis strawberry varieties. In recent years, that inventor’s share amounted to more than $2 million each year.

Shaw wrote that he is leaving because the university no longer cares about the kind of practical, commercially valuable breeding that he does. “We do not fit here any longer,” he wrote in the e-mail.

Strawberry growers also worry that the university’s priorities are changing.

“We got a phone call from the University of California,” says Carolyn O’Donnell, communications director at the California Strawberry Commission, an industry group that has helped to fund the UC Davis breeding program. “They said that we no longer needed to send them money because they were going to discontinue the [breeding] program” when the current breeders leave.

This set off alarms. Farmers feared that future varieties, from the private company, might cost more and might not even be available to all growers.

O’Donnell says the commission tried to convince the university to maintain the breeding program, but “we kind of felt that the university wasn’t taking us very seriously,” she says. So the commission sued.

The commission is asking the courts to stop the university from “privatizing” strawberry breeding. It also wants to ensure that the university’s collection of strawberry varieties stays in public hands.

Mary Delany, an associate dean of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at UC Davis, says the lawsuit is based on a misunderstanding. “We never said that we were going to close the program. We said that we are evaluating the program,” she says. The university has now decided to continue breeding strawberries, and is now looking for someone to replace Douglas Shaw.

Shaw and his colleague Kirk Larson, who is also planning to leave for the private sector, did ask for permission to take copies of the strawberry collection with them, Delany says, but that request was denied. “This is University of California property,” she says.

O’Donnell says that this is all good news, but before dropping its lawsuit, the commission wants more guarantees that the university will maintain a healthy, vigorous breeding program, aimed at creating that next great strawberry variety.

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