Strawberry growers increasing profits through techonology adoption

By Brad Bergefurd, Extension Educator, Agriculture and Natural Resources

Thanks to support from the Ohio Department of Agriculture, USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant, and the Ohio Vegetable and Small Fruit Research and Development Program that funded research exploring season extension production techniques, Ohio strawberry growers are profiting from adopting strawberry production technology based on research at the OSU South Centers.

Southern Ohio strawberry growers, south of I-70 and down to the Ohio River reported some of the best harvests in 2017 they can recall, achieving yields of almost 2 quarts per plant on some farms.

Strawberry market demand continues to grow and be strong in Ohio. Consumer demand at local farmers markets and farm markets continues to out-pace production. Consumer interest in “Pick-Your-Own” also continues to grow with most of this market demand peaking on weekends, for this is a form of “Agritainment” that families are wanting to experience. This weekend-only interest does make it necessary to have alternative weekday options to market strawberries. Demand is also strong for Ohio-grown strawberries at Ohio produce auctions and direct marketing to Ohio wholesaler buyers with many wholesale markets establishing “Buy Local” marketing campaigns to fulfill demand for local produce. Retail prices for the 2017 season ranged from $4 to $6 a quart pre-picked and $2.20 to $2.50 a pound for pick-your-own berries. The reported wholesale prices ranged from $2.25 to $3.85 a quart. Retail and wholesale prices are up from 2016, but growers report no consumer complaints.

Season extension production techniques continue to be explored and adopted to fulfill individual farm market demands. Though matted row production continues to be the main method, plasticulture production has been widely adopted to compliment the matted row system by providing a 3- to 4-week earlier harvest, which then leads into the later matted row harvest allowing farms to capture the consumer demand and a longer season with up to 12 weeks of cash flow. Ohio research continues and some farms are adopting greenhouse, high tunnel and/or summer day-neutral production to capture even more of the strong market demand. Growers that are harvesting and marketing day-neutral varieties through the summer and fall months are reporting great market demand and retail prices of $5 to $6 a pint. This summer production has complimented diversified farms that also produce and market summer-time fruit and vegetables. Growers who have adopted greenhouse and tunnel production for later harvest report the biggest issue being management of the Spotted Wing Drosophila and achieving economically feasible yields to cover the increased costs and management of these protected production systems. University and on-farm research is being performed to continue to refine these potential production systems for Ohio.

Weather was either the Ohio strawberry grower’s friend or foe in 2017. The very mild winter resulted in very little to no reported winter damage to plasticulture strawberry plants, that never go 100% dormant and are more prone to freeze damage than matted row. Weather was the southern Ohio grower’s friend when the spring warmed up earlier than normal, resulting in earlier bloom and harvest beginning the last two weeks in April, some of the earliest reported harvest dates ever. Spring frosts and freezing temperatures had to be managed some with row covers and sprinkler irrigation, but there were not many sleepless nights. Throughout harvest, rainfall was heavy in some areas resulting in some flooding making it difficult to get timely and frequent fungicide applications made. Some southern farms reported Botrytis outbreaks toward the tail end of harvest, due to rains during late bloom, or they would have picked even longer. There were also isolated reports of Leather Rot especially in northern areas where rainfall amounts were much heavier during initial bloom and lasted throughout the bloom period, resulting in field flooding and ponding and major crop damage and loss for some farms, especially in Northeast Ohio.    

Mechanical harvest aids are being adopted by more and more Ohio farms to increase harvest labor efficiency and increase the speed of harvest. Those that have adopted these harvest aids are reporting major savings in labor costs, as they are able to perform timely harvests with less labor. There also is continued research in mechanical harvesting techniques by Ohio engineering companies who showcased prototypes of mechanical harvesting robots at this year’s Strawberry Field Night held at the OSU Piketon Research & Extension Center in May and at several strawberry farms throughout Ohio. To keep up with market demand, mechanical harvesting options will need to be explored as seasonal labor becomes harder to find.  

The 2018 harvest season is looking good so far with high quality strawberry tips arriving from Canada and Nova Scotia the end of July showing no reported signs of disease or quality issues at this point. There were some 7- to 10-day delays in shipments from these northern Canada and Nova Scotia nurseries due to cool temperatures that delayed harvest of runner tips. The weather throughout August was great for on-farm and plug plant propagation by nurseries that have started growing plug plants for this growing market. There was not an overabundance of plug plants, because most nurseries plant on a pre-order basis, which made it difficult for growers that had not pre-ordered plants to find the plants they needed, resulting in them having to decrease acreage. Plant propagation nurseries reported an increase in plant orders. September weather allowed for timely planting of plasticulture strawberries with great plant stands and growth being reported. So far September and October weather has been a “Carolina” type of fall so flower bud initiation and branch crown development has been good so far.

A tri-state strawberry growers cooperative, including Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia farms continues to be researched with a core group of growers forming a steering committee in 2016 to explore the feasibility of forming a cooperative and/or association. This committee meets several times a year in conjunction with strawberry field days or conferences. If you are interested in what this cooperative may be able to do for your operation, contact founding member Danny VanMeter at VanMeter Family Farm 164 Old Peonia Loop Rd., Clarkson, KY 42726, Phone: 270-963-2320 or Brad Bergefurd at 740-289-2071 Ext. 136 or Dr. John Strang at University of Kentucky Dept. of Horticulture, N-318 Ag. Sci. Bldg. North, Lexington, KY 40546-0091 Phone: 859-257-5685 or Email: jstrang@uky.edu.