Trial of a combination plasticulture / matted row strawberry production system in central Kansas

Progress report for FNC21-1264

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2021: $5,898.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2023
Grant Recipient: Tenth Street Orchard
Region: North Central
State: Kansas
Project Coordinator:
Jonathan Conard
Tenth Street Orchard
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Project Information

Description of operation:

Tenth Street Orchard grows strawberries, blackberries, and apples on 8 acres in central Kansas. We have always tried to be good stewards of the land and implement practices that are beneficial for soil health and resource conservation. We have used drip irrigation to help with water conservation and have also used cover crops extensively following strawberry harvest.

Summary:

Production of strawberries in many parts of the country has moved away from a perennial matted-row system to an annual plasticulture system.  An annual plasticulture system has the potential to produce higher yields of strawberries, but may require more frequent soil tillage and higher input costs.  Soil tillage causes increased rates of soil erosion, alters soil biology, and reduces soil quality over time.  This project seeks to trial an ecologically sound growing method that could reduce tillage in strawberry production systems while promoting soil health and economic viability.  The proposed trial growing method would utilize a 2-year cycle of production in which strawberries are grown for the first year on plastic mulch and retained for a second year of production in a modified matted-row system.  This combination model has the potential to increase soil health due to reduced tillage, reduce agricultural waste production, and increase overall profitability by reducing input, labor, and plant costs.

Project Objectives:
  1. Evaluate the yield and profitability of a combination plasticulture / matted-row strawberry production system.
  2. Compare measurements of soil health for a combination plasticulture / matted-row strawberry production system and an annual plasticulture system.
  3. Share findings by hosting a field day with the regional Growing Growers apprenticeship program that promotes sustainable agriculture throughout south-central Kansas; hosting a workshop for county 4-H youth, hosting a workshop for county FFA clubs, presenting results at a conference, and demonstrating production methods using videos on social media and farm website.

Research

Materials and methods:

Chandler strawberry plugs were planted in September 2020 into plastic mulch in 12 rows that are each 150’ long. Within this field, 20’ end segments on 12 rows will be randomly assigned the following experimental treatments.

  1. Annual plasticulture treatment: Four rows will be mowed, plastic removed, soil tilled and planted to a sorghum-sudangrass cover crop.  Cover crop residue will be incorporated using a rotary tiller in early August.  These rows will be replanted on plastic mulch in September 2021 using the same spacing and variety. 
  2. Combination plasticulture/matted-row runner treatment: Four rows will be mowed, plastic removed, and alternating strawberry plants will be pulled to provide room for runner establishment and appropriate plant densities.  These strawberries will be weeded throughout summer and retained for second-year harvest.
  3. Combination plasticulture/matted-row crown treatment: Four rows will be mowed, plastic removed, and crowns thinned as needed.  Runners will be removed throughout summer and plants retained for second-year harvest.

All rows will be covered with 1.25 oz row-cover from early December to mid-March.

Bloom counts, berry size, marketable and total yield, soil-organic carbon, soil respiration, soil health scores, and fungi:bacteria ratios, will be compared for each treatment. Data will be collected on the middle 10’ segment of each row to reduce inter-plot interference and edge effects.

A Haney soil test will be used to determine pH, organic matter, soil respiration, organic carbon, and a soil health score for each treatment.  A phospholipid fatty acid (PLFA) test will be used to determine fungal and bacterial ratios.  Soil samples will be collected in June 2021, September 2021, and June 2022 to compare the impacts of reduced tillage associated with second-year production on soil characteristics. 

Input costs, labor time, and income will be compared between treatments to determine profitability. 

Research results and discussion:

The Haney soil test was used to determine pH, organic matter, soil respiration, organic carbon, and an overall soil health score for each treatment. A phospholipid fatty acid (PLFA) test was used to determine fungal and bacterial ratios in each location. Soil samples were taken on June 25, 2021 (initial sampling) and September 23, 2021 for each of the three treatments. Soil was taken from each of the treatment rows and soil was mixed before submitting a sample for each treatment for soil health analysis.

Soil Health Analysis

The soil health analysis showed some interesting differences between the treatment groups. For the microbial community, the total microbial biomass decreased for both of the second-year treatments (crown and runners) from June to September. For the annual treatment, there was a similar microbial biomass in June and September. The fungi:bacteria ratio decreased for the annual treatment, this may have been due to soil tillage that shifted the soil community to a more bacterial dominated state. Both of the second-year treatments that were not tilled over the summer had a greater fungi:bacteria ratio which indicated that a fungal community was beginning to become more established for treatments that were not disturbed by tillage.

For soil chemistry, the annual treatment had a slightly lower pH due to the incorporation of sulfur that was added during tillage. The percentage of organic matter was similar for all treatments and did not appear to change greatly from June to September. The total organic carbon increased for all of the treatments. The annual treatment had been planted to a cover crop which may have helped improve soil carbon and the second-year treatments may have sequestered soil carbon over the summer. Soil respiration increased for all treatments from June to September but the greatest increase was in annual treatment. This could have been due to bacterial breakdown over the cover crop following tillage. It will be interesting to see if this community continues to have a higher level of soil respiration. The soil health calculation increased for all treatments. For the annual treatment, the presence of the summer cover crop was probably responsible for the increase in the soil health score and organic carbon levels. For the second-year treatments, the soil health score may have increased due to a lack of tillage.

PFLA Test – Community Composition

Fungi: Bacteria Ratios

Treatment

June 2021

September 2021

June 2022

Annual

0.0366

0.0164

 

Runner

0.1413

0.2847

 

Crown

0.0882

0.2079

 

PFLA Test – Total Living Microbial Biomass

Treatment

June 2021

September 2021

June 2022

Annual

2645.62

2476.1

 

Runner

4029.24

419.45

 

Crown

2729.17

183.78

 

Soil Health Calculation

Treatment

June 2021

September 2021

June 2022

Annual

6.46

13.72

 

Runner

6.29

8.6

 

Crown

6.46

9.34

 

Total Organic Carbon (ppm C)

Treatment

June 2021

September 2021

June 2022

Annual

85

205

 

Runner

103

168

 

Crown

118

156

 

Soil Respiration (CO2 – C)

Treatment

June 2021

September 2021

June 2022

Annual

35.6

69.8

 

Runner

27.9

35.2

 

Crown

25.9

46.6

 

Organic Matter (%)

Treatment

June 2021

September 2021

June 2022

Annual

3.6

3.8

 

Runner

3.3

3.2

 

Crown

3.5

3.3

 

Soil pH

Treatment

June 2021

September 2021

June 2022

Annual

7.4

6.8

 

Runner

7.7

7.7

 

Crown

7.1

7.1

 

Participation Summary
1 Farmer participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

1 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

7 Farmers
2 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

A field day to demonstrate the study design and strawberry production methods took place on October 2nd, 2021 at Tenth Street Orchard.  There was a small turnout for the event, but the individuals that were able to attend had a good experience and learned a lot about the project.  The attendees included a variety of aspiring growers and university/extension employees.  The Kansas State University Growing Growers Program publicized the field event for individuals that were participating in their apprenticeship program.  Tenth Street Orchard also publicized the event on social media.  

 

 

Learning Outcomes

8 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Lessons Learned:

The grant has been a learning experience that has had a positive impact on our operation.  The data that has been collected has been useful to determine how our management practices are impacting soil health.  We would encourage farmers to consider that different methods of strawberry production methods could be viable and that long-term thinking about soil health may be important to consider when deciding which production methods to implement.

For the second-year strawberry plants, we learned that the runner treatments varied greatly in terms of the number of runners that were produced by different varieties.  We observed that the Chandler variety produced a greater number of runners than both Flavorfest or Liz.  The rows with Chandler strawberries appeared to fill more quickly with runners.  While this was beneficial in the runner treatment rows, this tendency resulted in Chandler rows requiring more labor for removal of runners for both the crown treatments and annual treatments.  The second-year rows that did not produce runners quickly had a lot of exposed bare ground.  We would probably consider adding a light layer of straw mulch to help reduce bare ground and suppress weeds until runners could become established.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.