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 http://strawberry.uark.edu.