New strawberry production method offers earlier, longer fruit harvest
A new strawberry production method called plasticulture, will give Ohio consumers access to locally grown strawberries as early as the first week of May and as late as October, according to the results of an ongoing Ohio State University Extension research trial conducted by Brad Bergefurd, an OSU Extension horticulture specialist.
The method, in which strawberries are planted in early fall on a raised bed of soil covered with black plastic, results in farmers getting the berries to market at least a month earlier than the traditional matted row production that has been used by Ohio farmers, Bergefurd said.
In plasticulture the strawberries are planted in September and grow over the winter using plastic to keep the soil warm and suppress weed growth. It not only results in larger, sweeter berries, but it also allows farmers to capture a larger share of the local strawberry market because the berries can be harvested and sold over a period of four to five months, he said.
That compares to the four- to five-week harvest period for Ohio strawberries using the traditional matted row production method.
"Farmers from Lake Erie to the banks of the Ohio River are harvesting strawberries now," Burgefurd said. "We made it through the frost and freezes last month, and the fruit quality is fantastic."
The OSU Extension plasticulture trial includes about a half an acre of strawberry plants at the OSU South Centers and about 100 acres total on at least 25 farms statewide this season. The trial includes evaluating new strawberry varieties, with breeding coming from Florida, California, and North and South Carolina, Bergefurd said.
The method includes using row covers during the winter to protect the plants, which aren't as winter hardy, from frost and freeze.
The trial, in its 11th season, has entered harvest this week and is now producing the higher-quality, more commercially appealing berries, Bergefurd said. The trial will also, for the first time, produce summer-bearing fruit to allow the strawberry-harvesting season to extend up until October, depending on the weather.
"This is the first year that we are looking at these new summer-bearing varieties," Bergefurd said. "We looked at them six years ago, and they didn't have the commercial quality attributes and were smaller in size.
"But this year, with these new summer-bearing varieties, we're hoping for strawberries with better commercial attributes, larger fruit size, higher sugar contents and better disease resistance."
But there are drawbacks to the plasticulture method, he cautioned.
While plasticulture cuts down on the amount of water, fertilizer and pesticides needed, the initial input costs for farmers using this method are significantly increased, requiring an investment of at least $10,000 to $15,000 per acre, with some of that cost associated with irrigation and more management needed to grow the fields, Bergefurd said. The fields harvest from early May to October.
That compares to traditional matted row production, which averages about $4,000 per acre in production costs and harvests in June, he said.
But plasticulture strawberries have the potential to yield 20,000 to 25,000 pounds of strawberries per acre, compared to 10,000 to 15,000 pounds of strawberries per acre using the matted row method. And when you consider that retail strawberries fetch $2.50 to $3.50 per pound, the profit potential is "pretty good," Bergefurd said.
"There's a market just waiting to purchase the product," he said. "Most (Ohioans) aren't used to local strawberries until June, but there are plenty of customers that want to eat locally grown strawberries beginning in May and throughout the summer."
Strawberries available in stores now are shipped in from Florida and California.
"But when you compare an Ohio strawberry to those, there is no comparison because Ohio growers can leave the berries ripening on the plant longer because the berries are sold locally," Bergefurd said. "Just about every Ohio farmer that grows them for retail always sells out, so there is a strong market for the locally grown fruit.
"With the research results we've published, we've proven plasticulture has got potential and should be looked at by Ohio growers."