Extending Strawberry Harvest
Strawberry Growers Extend Traditional Harvest to Gain Market Edge
|Chilling strawberry plant plugs translates into new profits for Florida growers like Larry Gillard (left) who, with help from Bradford County Extension Director David Dinkins (right) and others, was able to sell fruit in late fall for a premium. Photos by Thomas Wright.|
North Florida strawberry growers seeking an advantage in a competitive market worked with researchers at the University of Florida to test ways to start strawberry plants in late summer, a time when production usually shuts down due to intense heat and pest pressure. Extending the season means the growers can harvest in November and December, before California-produced strawberries flood the winter market and drive the price down.
With a SARE producer grant, Lawtey, Fla., grower Larry Gillard teamed with UF researchers to artificially chill strawberry plant plugs in a refrigerated trailer. Gillard, an electrician, wired the trailer for grow lights, built wooden frames and ran drip irrigation throughout the trailer. He maintained the temperature at between 50 and 70 degrees, ran powerful fans and daily watered the 7,000 plugs, half obtained from a North Carolina farmer, half from a UF research center.
The hard work paid off. After about three weeks, Gillard planted the seedlings outside and was able to pick strawberries on Halloween, a north Florida first. It workedthe plants loaded up with berries, said David Dinkins, Bradford County, Fla., extension director, who worked closely with Gillardand four other growers. We found that we can artificially chill the berries, keep them healthy, plant them in the field and watch them produce.
The bottom line: Gillard and others sold strawberries for $30.00 and $35.00 a flat, twice the price Florida-grown strawberries bring when matched against the California competition. Gillard held a field day to promote the successful results under the proud sign, Home of Larrys Berries Doing it up Ripe. Some of the project findings indicated ways to fine-tune the system to cut both costs and labor.
The plugs obtained from North Carolina did not need the extra chilling because the states lower temperatures stimulate plant growth by mid-September. Moreover, buying a trailer outright rather than renting it would prove a more economical option, especially for a team of farmers.
[For more information, go to www.sare.org/projects/ and search for FS00-127]