Texas Strawberry Project Building on Success in Year Two

By Russ Wallace, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension

The Texas Strawberry Project is a statewide collaborative effort with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension and Prairie View A&M University designed to address the misperceptions and constraints regarding sustainable strawberry production for both large and small-acreage growers in Texas. Our main goal is to revitalize the industry and increase sustainable strawberry production in both current and traditionally non-producing regions of Texas through actual on-farm production experiences, grower-sponsored field demonstrations, scientific research, grower conferences, field days, consumer evaluations, and marketing and sales. Our emphasis during Phase I was to conduct research to demonstrate to growers alternative techniques for growing strawberries in our different climatic regions statewide. During Phase II, we increased our number of new growers and conducted more outreach by including our county horticulture agents in our training, allowing them on-farm experience with the growers in their counties, and invited our growers to record their strawberry marketing and sales.

Strawberries grown in a high tunnel at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research & Extension Center in Lubbock. Photo by Russ Wallace, 2015.

In both years our collaborating growers were allowed to market and sell what they produced.  As a result of this, we’ve concluded three main factors for success with strawberries in Texas.

First, we can grow strawberries successfully in the majority of our climates and regions in Texas, even in regions where high soil pH and high temperatures occur. Using alternative production techniques like high and low tunnels, plastic mulch and drip irrigation improved yield and quality.

Second, growers that did not pay excellent attention to their crop during the growth and development stage had the poorest results. Strawberries require constant care. Diseases, insects, and weeds were critical pests for our organic producers; in fact, during the spring of 2015 many of our organic growers lost between 50% and 90% of their berries from fruit rots (Botrytis gray mold and Anthracnose).  Most growers discovered that strawberries also require greater attention to fertility as well.

Third, once growers started selling their berries they quickly discovered their value to their customer base. During Phase I, many growers undersold their berries and during Phase II we encouraged them to sell at higher prices. Overall, the Texas Strawberry Project has been extremely successful and has opened the door for many small acreage growers to add this high value crop to their farming systems. The quote below sums up well the overall experience of many of our new strawberry growers in Texas.

High Tunnel Strawberry Field day on April 26, 2014 at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research & Extension Center in Lubbock. Participants inspecting the strawberries inside the one of the high tunnels. Photo by Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, 2014.

High Tunnel Strawberry Field day on April 26, 2014 at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research & Extension Center in Lubbock. Participants inspecting the strawberries inside the one of the high tunnels. Photo by Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, 2014.

“My best experience with customers was the first time we took the berries to market. We started selling the berries even before the market was open; the customers were getting into a frenzy to get them. At one point both my granddaughter and I feared for our lives as we couldn’t get the berries to the customers fast enough. We sold out in 15 minutes. It was at that point I knew we needed to grow more berries, and continue to improve our knowledge on growing them. We would have never started growing strawberries if the grant had not been available to us. Strawberries now are becoming a major focus for next year’s production”.

'Benicia' strawberry grown in a high tunnel. It is a June-bearing type that was released several years ago and has strong vigorous plants with very large, well-shaped berries. Photo by Russ Wallace, 2014.

‘Benicia’ strawberry grown in a high tunnel. It is a June-bearing type that was released several years ago and has strong vigorous plants with very large, well-shaped berries. Photo by Russ Wallace, 2014.

More information about the Texas Strawberry Project can be found on their Facebook page, facebook.com/texasstrawberryproject