Jan 20, 2017
Nationwide project seeks sustainable U.S. strawberry industry

A nationwide project is seeking grower input on how to achieve a sustainable strawberry industry that supports farmers, takes care of the environment and provides healthful food to consumers.

The National Strawberry Sustainability Initiative (NSSI) began with a $4 million, two-year grant from the Walmart Foundation that funded 26 projects in 17 states. Based at the University of Arkansas, NSSI is led by researchers from 13 states. Its focus is not just on large production states like California and Florida, but on states where many growers raise smaller berry acreages, and where production for local markets and specialty niches could potentially be expanded.

NSSI projects run the gamut of strawberry production, from organic to conventional, from large states to small and from indoor to outdoor. Photos: NSSI

Projects range from research on composting and cover crops in North Carolina and fumigant alternatives in California to high tunnel production in Kansas and hydroponic production in Arizona and Arkansas. Participating researchers and growers are leading the effort to find out what growers across the country perceive as their most important needs – or barriers – and then analyze the results, develop priorities and formulate a proposal for a large USDA Specialty Crops Research Initiative grant.

“It’s been working very well,” said Russ Wallace of Texas A&M University, who led a project that assisted dozens of new growers to get started in strawberries. “We’ve had a lot of interest from growers, mostly smaller growers, and one of the interesting things we discovered was that a lot of them wanted to grow organically. But there was a lot of rain during two years of the project, and growers lost a lot of fruit to disease and pests. So now, through a SARE grant, we’re researching biocontrol products.

“Being part of a national cooperation has been fantastic,” he said. “We’ve been able to collaborate with and learn from researchers in other states, such as the hydroponics project in Arizona.”

Texas grower Craig Turley participated as a first-time strawberry grower. He started small, and has doubled his production for each of the three years he’s raised strawberries, though he’s faced a steep learning curve.

“What has spurred me to continue on was that the first time we took berries to the market, it was literally a frenzy, people were practically snatching them out of our hands,” Turley said. “Every week it was that way. The demand seems overwhelming.”

In Minnesota, researcher Emily Hoover, whose earlier NSSI project created an e-book compiling best production practices for the northern climate, said strawberries have an incredible amount of sales potential.

“Here in the Twin Cities area consumers want to buy local, and there are a lot of young growers who are interested in growing strawberries,” she said. “We’ve had an ongoing project growing day-neutrals and tunnel berries – here it is Oct. 27, and we’re still picking.”

An important part of the project is a national grower survey, which will collect input from growers on their needs and concerns this winter. The survey will be followed up by a broad-based meeting to develop priorities and strategies for NSSI and the SCRI grant proposal.

“We could be doing a lot of research, and if it doesn’t fit with what growers are doing or need, then it doesn’t make sense,” Wallace said.

Because grower needs and barriers vary from region to region, and visions for sustainability also vary, the participatory process is crucial.

“There are so many areas where we need help – from disease control to selecting the best varieties for our area,” Turley said.

Growers, nursery owners, Extension educators and production managers can all take the survey. Visit http://strawberry.uark.edu to participate.

— Debby Wechsler, VGN correspondent

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