Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Strawberry Production 101

By Andrea Yoder & Richard de Wilde

FlavorFest Strawberries packed in
pints and ready for CSA boxes!
Strawberries are in the peak of the season right now and we are picking nearly every day just to keep up with the pace of their ripening!  We do not grow many fruits in our valley, but we take pride in our strawberries and try to deliver the best tasting berries possible.  It is no small task and requires planning in advance to make it happen.  In fact, right now we are managing two strawberry fields.  We have the field we are currently harvesting and we have a new field that was planted this spring.  We only harvest from a field for two seasons before we destroy the field, but in order to have a continuous supply of berries from year to year this means we have one year where we have two fields to manage!  So this week we thought you might find it interesting to learn a little more about how we produce these tasty little berries.

At Harmony Valley Farm, we use the “Matted Row” system of strawberry production.  This means we plant bare root dormant strawberry plants in early spring.  We source our plants from Nourse Farms in Massachusetts.  When they arrive they are frozen and don’t look like much.  Our goal is always to get them planted as soon as we can after we receive them, weather permitting.  We space them about 16-18” apart and plant two rows on a bed.  The first year we do not harvest fruit from these plants, which are called mother plants.  While they will produce blossoms, we snip them off to shunt the energy in the plant towards producing daughter plants instead of fruit.  Generally the amount of fruit a first-year plant would produce is not that great, thus it is more productive to forego the fruit and allow the plant to become more established.  The main strawberry plant will send off new growth called runners.  These runners will produce the daughter plants that will set their roots into the soil thus propagating our strawberry crop!  As the daughter plants become established the rows start to fill in and widen.

Freshly shaped beds with black drip irrigation
lines coming out of the ends of the beds.

Before we can transplant the strawberry plants, we have to prepare the field.  Despite the fact that Richard has been growing strawberries for over 30 years, we continue to find ways to improve our production system every year.  In recent years we’ve started burying drip lines under the beds so we have a way to deliver water and nutrients to the plants.   This can get a little tricky because the lines have to be buried deep enough that they don’t get tangled up in any mechanical cultivation equipment or get damaged by transplanting and weeding crews.  Their placement on the bed and the depth of the placement need to be correct for these reasons as well as others.  In a drought year these 
drip lines are crucial for keeping the field productive as we cannot use any overhead irrigation 
methods once the plants have started to set fruit.  

In order for a field to be productive and efficiently managed, we need for all the pieces of production to come together in near perfect alignment.  This year Rafael got innovative and used his experiences and observations gleaned from previous strawberry field challenges to create a modified implement.   He calls this new tool a Canoe Shaper and we used it this year to prepare the beds and lay the drip tape.   The purpose of the shaper was to prepare straight beds for planting by shaping the beds and laying the irrigation drip tape all at one time.  This new method also increases our options for mechanical cultivation.  The canoe shaper uses the dirt from the middle of the bed to shape two mini beds that are able to better support the plants and allow the drip tape to be buried at an appropriate depth.  Essentially, this modified implement allows us to build a solid foundation for all the field activities that need to happen throughout the life of the field.  So far Rafael is very pleased with the results.  The irrigation team is also pleased with the field.  Having the drip tape properly buried means less damage to the lines from weeding and cultivating tools, which in turn means less leaks they have to repair!  While we will have to hand weed the field at some point, thus far we’ve been able to deal with most weeds with mechanical cultivation.
Transplanting the mother plants.
  We’ll see how things go the rest of the season, but so far it seems that a little innovation may have helped us achieve our overall improvement goals!

This year we also widened the spacing between each bed so we have more room for the harvest crew when they are picking.  They utilize little picking carts to keep the harvest totes off the ground.  We don’t want them to damage the plants so we ask them to walk gracefully in the field, like ballerinas.  None of them are classically trained dancers, and while they are graceful, we found it is easier to preserve the plants by just giving them more space to walk and place their carts.

Over the course of the first year, we control weeds with mechanical cultivation and hand weeding.  We also provide nutrients and watch for any disease or pest problems that may need our attention.   In late summer we seed a cover crop of Japanese millet in the field which helps to shade out weeds.  Japanese millet cannot survive a frost, so it will die off with the first hard frost we get in the fall.  The benefit of this is that the millet will then become mulch for the field, how convenient!  In the fall the plants will start to produce the embryos or buds in the crown or base of the plant for the following year.  In addition to the mulch created by the millet, we will also heavily mulch the field with straw after the ground freezes but before it snows.  All of this mulch helps to insulate and protect the new growth in the crown from freezing and thawing over the winter.   When spring rolls around and the temperatures start to warm up, we have to walk through the field and loosen the straw mulch with a pitch fork so the new growth can push through.  We leave the mulch in the field where it helps to fill in the spaces between the plants, choke out the weeds and provide a clean bed for the strawberries.
Japanese Millet planted
in between rows of strawberries
  The mulch isn’t removed too soon though or the plants will start to blossom and are at greater risk of being damaged by frost.  If the blossoms are damaged by frost, they will develop a black center and will not produce a berry. This spring we experienced a late freeze, after the plants had already started to blossom.  In situations such as this we have to be ready to respond by covering the field with large row covers.  These are basically huge blankets to keep the strawberries warm and protected from frost.

Black centers in blossoms mean no fruit will form.

This year we planted 5 different varieties of strawberries.  We select the varieties based on their ripening season, flavor, color, disease resistance and production.  Every year we evaluate the plants and the characteristics of their fruit to decide which varieties we like best and want to plant again.  In California and Florida, two major strawberry producing states, the varieties they plant are “ever-bearing.”  These varieties have longer ripening seasons and have been bred to be a firmer berry with a longer shelf life to hold up to shipping.  While these strawberries often look pretty, their flavor is no comparison to any local berry you will get in early summer.  The berries we plant are “June-bearing.”  While our season is shorter in comparison, we select varieties that ripen at different times so we can extend our season as long as we can.  The hot, dry weather we’ve had this year has resulted in berries that are smaller in size, but they are quite tasty as the flavor is concentrated into a smaller package!

Jaime & Gerardo removing
 the blossoms from the mother plants.

After the harvest is done in the first year of production, we “renovate” the field.  This means we destroy some of the plants to promote more runners and daughter plant production for the next year.   When harvest is finished in the second year of production, we destroy the field.  Why do we do this when the field is still producing?  Well, we like to keep our patch as clean as we can and free from perennial weeds.  The older the patch, the greater the chance that weed seeds such as dandelion and thistle, will make their way into the patch.  A young, clean patch will usually have greater production and yields.

As you can see, there is a lot involved with strawberry production!  We hope you are enjoying this year’s crop and perhaps next year we’ll be able to resume our Strawberry Day event.  While eating strawberries out of a CSA box is a tasty experience, nothing compares to standing in the field and eating a freshly picked strawberry right off the plant, still warm from the sun.  That is one of life’s simple pleasures. 

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