Strawberry initiative energizes industry; accomplishments summarized in e-book
By Dave Edmark
The Cooperative Extension Service
U of A System Division of Agriculture
- Two-year project supported by Walmart Foundation
- PDF e-book available online for download at http://strawberry.uark.edu/NSSIphase2.pdf
- Recent projects in six states featured
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Strawberry production in the U.S. is getting a significant boost thanks to two years of work by agricultural research and extension personnel who teamed up with growers across the nation to explore new ways to invigorate the industry.
The results are available in a 36-page e-book, Success in the Field: Accomplishments of Phase II of the National Strawberry Sustainability Initiative 2014-2015, a PDF available for free downloading at http://strawberry.uark.edu/NSSI_Phase_II_EBook_2015.pdf.
The e-book covers the second phase of the National Strawberry Sustainability Initiative, which began in 2013 as a public-private partnership. The NSSI was comprised of 26 projects in 13 states with the support of $4.05 million in grants from the Walmart Foundation. The program was managed nationally by the Center for Agricultural and Rural Sustainability of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.
“As growers have observed, learned, tested, adapted and implemented production information and technology provided by the NSSI and its 26 projects, a change has begun to ripple throughout the strawberry industry,” said Curt Rom, a Division of Agriculture horticulture professor who directed the strawberry initiative. “The impact of the NSSI has been strong and immediate. The outcomes of this program will be felt for years to come.”
For Phase II, which began in 2014, a total of $845,500 in funds was distributed to projects in Florida, North Carolina, Maryland, New Jersey, Arkansas and Texas. The Phase II projects included testing of new strawberry cultivars, sustainable soil management, the expansion of organic strawberry production, community engagement though schools and gardens, season extension and pest exclusion using high tunnels and greenhouses, and implementing precision technology for water management and frost protection.
The program emphasized putting proven technology into practice and involved farmers in all aspects, from project planning to assisting with demonstrations to hosting workshops and field days. Forty-eight individual farms participated in the six projects as grower-collaborators with on-farm trials.
“The purpose of Phase II was to capitalize on successes in Phase I and scale up the sustainable technologies, moving from test and demonstration to implementation by project leaders working with key players throughout the strawberry supply chain,” Rom said. “The goal was to enhance adoption of best practices for production and distribution, as well as raise awareness of regional and locally available strawberries, thereby extending the impact of the NSSI.”
The e-book presents a state-by-state breakdown of the projects completed in Phase II and their impacts, including profiles of grower-collaborators.
Arkansas – “Growing Strawberries: A Public-Private Partnership” addressed the growing interest in revitalizing the fruit industry in Arkansas, especially strawberry production in Washington and Boone counties. The project used a unique public-private partnership between the Division of Agriculture in Fayetteville, North Arkansas College in Harrison and strawberry growers in both counties. This project equipped farmers with the technology and information needed to grow strawberries smarter and enabled extension agents and educators to continue to inform future growers about sustainable strawberry production in Arkansas and the surrounding area.
“When I look at the quality of strawberries I can produce, I want to do it, but I can’t produce enough to meet the demand,” said Clyde Fenton, who operates Fenton’s Berry Farm in Harrison and grows strawberries in a high tunnel. “It takes a different frame of mind than for a 10-acre strawberry grower, but tunnels work well for the small diverse farmer.”
Florida – “Addressing Grower-Identified Priorities in Organic Strawberry Cropping Systems in the Southeastern U.S.” was led by the University of Florida and North Carolina A&T University. Its aim was to promote the expansion of organic strawberry production in the Southeast by designing organic strawberry cropping systems that are more environmentally and economically sustainable and are resilient to weeds, pests, and diseases. Project activities included the evaluation of various components of an organic strawberry system, including cultivar trials, cover crop evaluations for weed and nematode management, high tunnel production, and insect and mite pest management practices, on organic farms and experiment station land in Florida and North Carolina.
Don Long, who raises organic strawberries at 5K Farm in Plant City, Florida, partnered with the University of Florida to investigate cover crops for organic weed and nematode suppression and study the performance of eight cultivars in organic production.
“I plan to continue to raise organic strawberries,” Long said. “There is a great need for (additional) practical, applied research.”
Maryland – “Implementing Low-Cost Wireless Sensor Networks for Irrigation, Nutrient Management and Frost Protection of Strawberry” was a University of Maryland project that demonstrated the effects of sensor networks on water use, crop growth and fruit quality on commercial strawberry farms.
The project found that sensor networks were able to improve the profitability of strawberry operations by reducing management time and optimizing irrigation input to production output. An in-depth economic analysis of the return-on-investment showed that sensor-controlled irrigation can be successfully implemented for strawberry production with reasonable returns on investment, even when above-average rainfall is received.
“It (the wireless sensor network) generates a ton of data,” said Ben Butler of Butler’s Orchard in Germantown, Maryland. “One of the nicest parts is that it can measure bloom and air temperatures, which is really helpful for evaporative cooling during harvest. I’m actively using the program and will still use it for other crops when strawberries are finished.”
North Carolina – “Sustainable Soil Management Practices for Strawberries: Diverse Approaches for Facilitating Adoption,” a North Carolina State University project, sought to increase adoption of sustainable soil management practices, including the use of composts, cover crops, and beneficial soil inoculants in commercial strawberry farms. The project team partnered with four strawberry growers, one strawberry plug producer and one research station to demonstrate these practices and improve technology transfer to growers.
Research experiment results indicated that the soil management practices did not consistently impact yields in the two years of the experiment. However, when averaged over the two years, plug inoculation led to the highest strawberry yield in non-fumigated production and cover crops led to the highest yield in fumigated production systems.
J.R. Odom, a Goldsboro, North Carolina, strawberry grower, decided to include his whole strawberry planting in the project. “When I started farming, the first few years I grew all cotton and then all soybeans, and ran down [soil quality],” he said. “So I was searching for something like this project. I felt we needed to do something to increase the fertility of our soil.”
There was little visual difference with the inoculated plugs, Odom said, but they seemed to root better, establish more quickly after they were transplanted, and start growing more rapidly coming out of dormancy in the spring.
New Jersey – “On-Farm Performance and Nutrient Requirements of New Strawberry Varieties for the Eastern United States” was organized by Rutgers University, New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. The project’s focus was to continue the effort to expedite the release of Rutgers-bred strawberry selections by working with 13 growers in on-farm evaluations of Rutgers-bred selections and commercial cultivars. Strawberries were tested on organic and conventional farms and in plasticulture and matted row systems. Two commercial nurseries involved in the project offered the newly patented and released Rutgers ScarletTM plants in 2015 and sold out of plants.
Jess Niederer is an organic farmer in Pennington, New Jersey, and collaborated with the Rutgers project to trial three new strawberry lines on her farm. “The berries are incredibly flavorful, with a distinctly different flavor,” Niederer said. “There’s one I would contemplate growing if it is available commercially. I am thrilled that they included organic growers in the trials, so we can start to get a sense of what will perform best in each system.”
Texas – “Increasing Grower Market Potential and Consumer Preference for Locally Grown Strawberries Through Strategic Extension Programming in Texas,” a Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension project, was designed to help determine whether small-acreage strawberry production can be expanded more widely across the state and whether growers are willing to take the risks of a new crop enterprise.
On-farm demonstrations successfully equipped growers with the tools and information needed to continue to pursue strawberry production as a viable farm enterprise. Ninety-one percent of surveyed grower-collaborators who participated in the project responded that growing strawberries was worth the added effort, and 55 percent of the surveyed growers have plans to increase their acreage in the coming season.
James R. Moss of Hempstead, Texas, has been farming since 2012 but hadn’t grown strawberries until he became involved with this project. He decided to participate in the strawberry project for a second year and expanded his production to a total of 2,400 plants, with some of them supplied through Texas A&M AgriLife Extension. His experience prompted him to offer this advice to other first-time growers attempting to raise strawberries organically: “Make sure you have resources and sources for soil building before you get started – you need to be able to add good quality organic matter to your soil.”
Rom emphasized that the program has stimulated interest in strawberries across the nation and is revitalizing the industry by getting growers more involved in the process. The e-book illustrates its accomplishments so far and shows what the future can bring.
“The NSSI was a unique program that has, as presented in the e-books, created significant impact within the strawberry industries of the U.S. and is helping expand the industry and revitalize production in many states,” Rom said.
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