Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Farm Metrics: Strawberry (Fragraria)

In honor of the summer's end, this post considers one of the jewels of summer fruit: the strawberry. Pablito of Terra Firma Farm describes how modern and traditional strawberry growing practices compare below. I'll just add that this summer I worked the harvest one morning at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) farm in Santa Cruz, and one of our first tasks was the strawberry rows. I didn't count at the time but my memory is that about eight of us worked for an hour to fill 120 of those cute little green baskets to the brim with warm, bright, red fruit. That was one of my favorite hours ever. I'll write more about CASFS next week. 


Like most berries, strawberries growing in the wild are perennials -- plants that grow in the same place year after year.  And for centuries, farmers and gardeners who grew strawberries treated them this way.  They were planted and grown for a year and a half before bearing any fruit, then harvested for two or three years.   At any given time, a berry grower might have had two strawberry fields on their farm at the same time -- one that was producing and another that hadn't started yet.  Strawberries make this fairly easy for farmers by producing "daughter plants" on runners that need to be removed in order to improve fruit production.  In the old days, growers would simply cut the daughters off and then plant them in a new field.

In the 1970s, farmers and university researchers -- especially in California -- began to explore a more efficient way to produce strawberries by growing plants for a year in tightly packed "nursery" fields.  The plants are dug by machine, then sorted, packed into boxes and sold.  Strawberry growers buy and plant new batch of plants each year and then start harvesting fruit a few months later.  To put it in perspective, a few hundred acres of "nursery" fields now provide enough plants for tens of thousands of acres of producing berry fields.  The farmers growing berries can utilize more of their land to produce fruit.  And the nursery growers can focus on producing the best quality plants.  This is how modern specialized agriculture works, by finding inefficiencies and eliminating them.
The specialization in the strawberry industry is not just about who grows plants and who grows fruit.  It's also about which varieties produce well in which areas.  There are only a handful of varieties that grow well in the climate of the Central Valley with its cold winter, short spring and hot summer.  So when the entire nursery crop of Camarosa berries was killed by a freeze in 2009 -- the plants that would have produced berries for us in 2011 -- it hit our farm hard as well.  We planted other varieties to try to replace the missing plants, but none of them produced well and some simply died.  The crop of berries produced from those plants  -- a year and half after the freeze -- was our worst ever.

There were no problems getting berry plants last fall, and this spring's berry crop was one of our best ever.  So imagine our dismay when we received our strawberry plants last week and opened up the boxes to find the roots covered in mold and rotting.  A call to the nursery confirmed it:  for some unknown reason, the Camarosa plants this year were rotting in storage.  After carefully hand sorting through 50,000 plants, we ended up with roughly half the amount we had ordered.  There are no "extra" Camarosa plants to be had at this time, anywhere.

After learning our lesson in 2011, we won't be substituting any other varieties for the missing Camarosas.  We will simply have a smaller strawberry field than we planned.  There will probably still be plenty of berries for your boxes, but the season may be shorter and less abundant.  Keep your fingers crossed!


(excerpted from TerraFirma Farm newsletter, September 5, 2012)

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