E-book Proves Fruitful
Cold Climate Strawberry Farming helps commercial growers make the most of a short season
By Maggie Frazier
One only needs to visit a farmers market, roadside stand or pick-your-own operation to witness the intense interest in locally grown produce, including strawberries.
“We’re not anywhere near where supply meets demand,” says Emily Hoover (’80–M.S.; ’82–Ph.D., Horticulture), professor and head of the Department of Horticultural Science. And yet, “We in Minnesota have a hard time growing perennials because of our cold winter temperatures. Period.”
Now, new research on a season-extending production system—along with a host of other how-to information—can literally be found in commercial strawberry growers’ back pockets, on their smart phones.
Cold Climate Strawberry Farming, an e-book, is an A to Z guide for new and experienced growers on how to grow and sell strawberries commercially. It was written by a team of researchers, educators, designers and media professionals at the U of M and Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
The book can be downloaded for free and sits at the intersection of high demand for locally grown strawberries and tough, cold climates around the world. It includes videos, quizzes, worksheets and imagery. Two production methods are covered: One is traditional and time-tested. The other is innovative and shows plenty of promise.
Two cold-climate systems
The locally grown strawberries we usually see in stores, farmers markets, roadside stands and pick-your-own operations are from perennial plants known as June-bearing. The plant buds are dormant over the winter; they bloom in the spring and produce fruit in June.
“It’s a daylight response. From a plant standpoint, daylight is the one given in the world for them. Temperatures may fluctuate, but day length is consistent,” Hoover says.
But if one local farm has ripe June-bearing strawberries, all the other farms do, too, for about three weeks every year in cold climates. For some farmers, that timeframe works to fill in the gaps before a different fruit crop comes in. But other growers—and strawberry consumers—would like local strawberries available for a longer period.
Day neutrals are heating up
Day-neutral strawberry varieties have virtually no cold hardiness. But if you treat them as an annual rather than a perennial needing to survive winter, that point is null. The season-extending difference is that day neutrals do not rely on day length as June-bearing varieties do.
“The day-neutral varieties are neutral in terms of daylight. So they can produce flowers and subsequent fruit as long as temperatures are consistently high enough for them to continue to grow,” says Hoover. This alleviates the time pressure associated with June bearers.
Because they’re annuals, growers can use weed- and disease-suppressing plastic mulch with day neutrals. Why? Because they’re not relying on perennials to send off runners to create daughter plants for following years’ crops.
“These day-neutral cultivars don’t start fruiting until late July. But then, in this protected system, they can produce fruit all the way through October,” says Emily Tepe (’08–M.S., Agriculture), research fellow and contributing author. “It extends the season for our growers and allows the consumers to have access to locally produced fresh fruit for a much longer season.”
The e-book team, including project coordinator Echo Martin, worked closely with growers throughout the book-creation process, particularly four farmers who represent different parts of the state, levels of experience and types of operations. Videos in the e-book chronicle their perspective.
The videos “bring personality to the book. Having words directly from these farmers makes it much more personal and connects it with people who are on the ground, growing the fruit and dealing with the issues,” says Tepe. “We wanted the reader to feel like they are there in the field with the grower.”
The project is funded by a grant from the Walmart Foundation and administered by the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture Center for Agricultural and Rural Sustainability.