An enterprise analysis of three organic strawberry production systems in northeastern Vermont

Final report for FNE16-858

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2016: $14,401.00
Projected End Date: 02/28/2018
Grant Recipient: Joe's Brook Farm
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Eric Skovsted
Joe's Brook Farm
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Project Information

Summary:

This study sought to help organic strawberry growers select a production system by comparing traditional matted row, plug plasticulture, and bare-root plasticulture through enterprise analysis.  We installed a 500 trial bed of the variety Jewel for each of the following systems:  traditional matted row, fall plug plasticulture, spring planted bare root with runners removed, and spring planted bare root with runners set in plastic.  We then performed an enterprise analysis tracking all expenses and yields for the duration of the planting.  While costs were relatively consistent across all systems, yields differed dramatically.  Spring planted bare root with runners set produced best with an adjusted yield/acre of 10,620 lb.  Traditional matted row produced an adjusted yield/acre of 9495 lb.  Fall plugs produced an adjusted yield/acre of 7140 lb.  Spring planted bare root with runners removed performed the worst with a total adjusted yield/acre of only 6765 lb.  The results of this study were reported at the 2017 Vermont Vegetable and Berry Association conference, at the New Hampshire North Country Vegetable and Berry Conference 2017 and the 2018 New Hampshire Vegetable and Berry Association conference.

Introduction:

Existing research on strawberry production is extensive. Some studies focus on organic production, but most involve conventionally grown crops. Therefore it is necessary to consider conventional strawberry research in addition to organic studies, keeping in mind that research continues to demonstrate that organic strawberry systems produce significantly lower yields than conventional systems (Rysin et al., 2015). Furthermore, strawberries are grown and research occurs in various climate zones across the United States. Therefore we have tried to select research from the northeast or cold climate/high elevation studies, though some southern studies have been included.

Since the advent of plasticulture strawberry production, research has demonstrated that it has the potential to produce greater yields of more marketable fruit for a longer season then traditional matted row plantings (Fiola et. al, 1997). This production comes with much higher expenses and therefore, greater risk. Frost, wet harvest conditions, extreme winters, disease and insect pressure, poor fertility and irrigation management can all significantly reduce yields in either system. Anything less than average yields in a plasticulture system can make it a money-losing endeavor while a lower cost matted row system subjected to the same stresses may still be profitable (O’Dell and Williams, 1999). This seems particularly important to note in an organic system where high yields are often difficult to attain (Carroll and Pritts, 2015).

Very little research exists comparing bare root plantings to plug plantings. A study performed on soilless plantings of strawberries in Florida found no significant difference in yields between bare root and plug plantings (Hochmouth, et. al, 2004). General publications suggest the majority of the organic plasticulture industry relies on plugs (Guerena and Born, 2007). Bare root propagator and berry grower Nate Nourse thinks that spring planted bare root plants present a better option for northeast growers than fall planted plug plants. He cites the difficulty of sourcing plug plants in a timely manner for a late summer planting, and indeed, we, and many farms have found that nurseries are routinely two or three weeks late in their shipments, resulting in a fairly short growing season, especially if the fall is cold. Nourse also suggests that growers have more varieties available in bare root, but admits that the cost of managing runners eliminates any savings generated by using less expensive bare root plants (Nourse, 2015).

Examples of enterprise analysis for strawberry production exist and will be relied upon in the design of this study. A recent SARE funded publication of everbearing strawberries in the northeast provides a useful framework for considering the many variable and fixed costs related to strawberry production (Lantz, et al). Guerena and Born offer additional examples of an enterprise budget for June bearing organic strawberries (Guerena and Born,2007). In general, a review of existing research suggests our proposal to study the three systems side by side using organic methods in northeast Vermont would be non-redundant and of considerable value to the strawberry growing community.

Works Cited

Carroll, J., Pritts, M.P., and Heidenreich, C., eds. (2015). Production Guide for Organic Strawberries. New York State Integrated Pest Management Program. Ithaca, NY. 64 pages.

Fiola, Joseph, O’Dell Charlie, Williams, Jerry. (1997) Cool Climate Strawberries Fare Well on Plasticulture. American Fruit Grower May 1997. Vol. 117 No. 5.

Guerena, Martin and Born, Holly. (2007). ATTRA PUBLICATION. Strawberries: Organic Production. www.attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/strawberry.html

Hochmuth, Robert C. Davis, Lani Lei, Crocker Tim, Dinkins, David, Hochmuth, George. Comparison of Bare- Root and Plug Strawberry Transplants in Soiless Culture in North Florida 98-04.

Lantz, Willie. Swartz, Harry, Demchak, Kathleen, Frick, Cherry. Season-Long Strawberry Production with Everbearers for Northeastern Production. EB401

Project Objectives:

Given the problem of selecting a strawberry production system best suited for organic production in the northeast, we will ask the following question: Is there a significant difference in yields, fruit quality and input costs among matted row, plug plasticulture and bare root plasticulture strawberry systems over the course of a single fruiting season. To answer this question we will establish three plantings of Jewel strawberries, each controlled for fertility, weed pressure and water. We will observe any differences in fixed inputs, such as equipment needs, and keep detailed records of the following variable inputs throughout the establishment and fruiting seasons for each system: plant expense, fertility, irrigation, plastic mulch, row cover, straw, labor requirements, and crew preference. During harvest we will observe differences in labor requirements, crew preference, fruit yield and fruit quality. Ultimately, we hope to paint a clear picture of the true costs and benefits of each system and make it easily accessible to other growers. We will achieve these objectives through the following methods and supporting budget.

Our hope is that the results of this study will help guide our farm and others in selecting a production system.  During the 2016 growing season we set up a controlled experiment for the four systems using the common, proven and popular strawberry variety Jewel.   We recorded all inputs from pre-plant through establishment, through maintenance and mulching. We will record harvest yields, efficiency and quality during the 2017 season to complete our enterprise analysis.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Heather Bryant

Research

Materials and methods:

We established a 500’ bed planting of Jewel strawberries for each system. Actual plant number/bed varied based on the system requirements. The goal is to study yields and costs per acre rather than per plant. The variety Jewel is ideal because it has excellent flavor, is a high yielder, a decent shipper, and performs well in organic systems. The four plantings are referred to as the following: plug plasticulture, bare root plasticulture runners removed, bare root plasticulture runners set, and matted row.

All three bare-root plantings were established in the spring of 2016 according to accepted practices. All received two lines of high flow drip tape buried approximately two inches deep. Plants were planted by hand using the Nourse planting tool. The plug planting was established in the fall using a water wheel transplanter. Pathway cultivation was performed with a walking tractor and a 20” tiller. Plastic edges, plant holes, and the matted row bed were weeded 3 times for the spring bare root, once for the fall plugs. We maintained soil moisture at 70 to 90% for most of the season except a couple weeks in July and August when our pump broke and it didn’t rain. 1 gallon of Neptune’s Harvest fish was applied/acre/irrigation. All plantings were generously mulched with straw by mid December.

Plant type, plant spacing, use of plastic, runner management and planting season differed for each planting. The specifics of each system are detailed below:

Bare root plasticulture runners removed—The bed was formed and laid with 4 foot, 1 mil black plastic. 750 Jewel plants were sourced from Nourse farms. Plants were planted by hand with a Nourse planting tool, 16” apart in 2 rows, each row about 6” to 8” from the edge of the plastic in an alternating pattern. Blooms and runners were removed twice by hand over the season.

Bare root plasticulture runners set—The bed was formed and laid with 4 foot, 1 mil black plastic. 334 Jewel plants were sourced from Nourse farms. Plants were planted by hand with a Nourse planting tool, 36” apart in 2 rows, each row about 6 to 8” from the edge of the plastic in an alternating pattern. Blooms and runners were removed twice by hand over the season.

Matted row—In a twist from traditional matted row systems we established our planting with drip tape so that all three systems are controlled for moisture. We planted 500 bare root Jewel plants from Nourse by hand, 12” apart in a single row down the center of the bed. Blooms were removed twice and runners were set to fill out the bed to 30” in width. No runners were removed. In bed weed control was performed by hand.

Plug plasticulture—We grew a crop of zucchini and incorporated it 2 weeks prior to establishing a 500’ bed of fall plugs. The bed was formed and laid with 4’ wide 1 mil micro-embossed black plastic. 1000 Jewel plants from Nova Fruit were planted the first week in September, 12” apart in 2 rows , 6” to 8” from the edge of the plastic in an alternating pattern with a water wheel transplanter No runner or bloom removal was required.

The most interesting part of the study took place during the second year with our planned harvest quality and yield observations during the 2017 season. Other farmers have expressed interest in the results when they found out about our study.

During the second year of our studyin the 2017 growing season we compared yields among the four different strawberry plantings.  In general, the season was late, wet, and cool.  We observed several 1″ plus rain events over the first two weeks of July which effected the quality of berries and may have resulted in slightly depressed yields among both grant berries and non grant berries.  We recorded yields as detailed in the methods section of our study but did not keep track of picking time.  There was significant variation among picker rates and a lot of starting and stoping as it often started raining in the middle of the picking session.  As a result, we had low confidence in the time estimates and abandoned tracking picking time.  We also abandoned tracking culls as we were running short on pickers and time.  This sped up the process and allowed us to keep track of the most important information:  yields.

Research results and discussion:

Strawberry-Grant-Spreadsheets

Our study is a two year study. First year record keeping relates to establishment costs of different strawberry production systems. All four systems cost between $7,000 and $9,000/ acre to establish. The most expensive system to establish is the fall plugs on plasticulture, coming in at $8,750/acre. The least expensive system was the 3’ spacing on plastic coming in at $7,364.00/ acre. Plant cost and labor are the two greatest variables between the systems. Fall plugs require the most plants purchased/acre and are the most expensive to purchase. In this study they cost 800% more than the plants for 3’ spacing on plastic. Labor inputs for fall plug systems on the other hand are minimal. We had a total of 33.75 hours/acre for planting and maintenance on our plugs vs. a range of 260-341 hrs of maintenance with the other systems. The most labor intensive system was matted row with 341 hours of planting and maintenance over the course of the establishment season. The cost displacement between plant cost and labor is amazing. 

We observed some significant differences in yields between the four systems.  Adjusted yields from a 500′ trial bed to a per acre rate follow:

Fall plugs:  7,140 pounds/acre

Matted row: 9,495 pounds/acre

Runners removed:  6,765 pounds/acre

24″ spacing runners set: 10,620 pounds/acre

36″ spacing runners set: 10,305 pounds/acre

Research conclusions:

The results show that setting runners is a superior system for the variety Jewel.  Other studies might show different results for different varieties.  With similar establishment costs among varieties, the profitability/acre of the higher yielding systems was almost double that of plugs and runners removed systems.  We have plans for 2018 plantings of Jewel with runners set to further test the yield potential/acre of this system.

Participation Summary
1 Farmer participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

3 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary

300 Farmers
30 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

I gave two power point presentations over the 2017 year.  One to the Vermont Vegetable and Berry Growers Association at their annual conference and one to the Northern New Hampshire Vegetable and Fruit Conference in Whitefield, NH.  I attached the power points used for the conferences.  They are saved as PDF.  I also gave a power point presentation to the New Hampshire vegetable and berry associations annual gathering on February 3rd, 2018.  

Strawberry-Production-at-JBF-2

StrawberryGrantPresentation2017

Learning Outcomes

1 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

Learning outcomes following our strawberry system enterprise analysis fall into two categories.  First, are the lessons we have learned on our own farm.  The project taught us about the importance of research and record keeping on a farm our size and helped us establish a habit of record keeping.  We now know the difficulties associated with an enterprise analysis and can apply some of the lessons related to data gathering and study design to other crops as we strive to analyze their profitability and the suitability of different systems.  We also learned about SARE grants and the process for applying for and executing a grant.  This lesson will help us identify the need for and apply for additional SARE grants in the future.  The final lessons we learned are specifically related to the study on hand and our project outcomes.  We reported significant variation in yields between each system while costs where relatively consistent.  While there is a need for more data across different varieties, the significance of setting runners for the studied variety, Jewel, is real.  As a result we will pursue systems for the variety Jewel where we set runners, either by hand into plastic, or passively in a matted row system.  It is also important to note that while there were offsets in the cost of labor vs. plants between some of the systems, the establishment costs were very similar between all trials.    This suggests that it costs what it costs to grow strawberries and that growers should be more concerned with maximizing yields in a strawberry planting than on cutting costs.  In other words, there is a lot more to be gained from increasing the harvest 10% than from cutting costs 10%. It also follows that adding a production cost that has the potential to significantly increase yields should be considered a very wise investment.  Things like drip irrigation, a spray regime, or growing under low tunnels, should be strongly considered regardless of the high initial cost for their potential to increase yields.  

As far as farmers beyond our farm learning from this project, I believe I have reached a large audience with my winter conference speaking schedule.  Conference comment cards have shown that some farmers are considering changing their strawberry systems following my presentation.  Other growers received an introduction to different systems they may not have known about and still other non strawberry growers now have a new tool to use when considering how best to make the plunge into the world of strawberry production

Project Outcomes

1 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
Project outcomes:

The fundamental change brought about by this study is that we will always set runners when growing the variety Jewel.  We will also avoid using fall plugs for this variety as yields for plugs were demonstrably lower for plugs as well.  This is a very real change in our farm production planning that we have already put in place for this coming spring.  Another unintended benefit of the grant has to do with the variety we trialed.  It was an exceptionally wet and cool summer with several heavy rain events in the middle of picking.  The strawberry variety Jewel held up very well in the face of this weather.  The plants berries are smaller, and held higher than other varieties and didn’t seem to take on the water like the larger soft skin varieties like cabot, Cavendish, and AC valley.  Because of the grant we had increased acreage in Jewel and were able to notice this trend and benefit from it. 

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Our goal was to answer the question:  what system should I use for growing 1 to 2 acres of organic strawberries?, through an enterprise analysis.  To this end we were somewhat successful.  A fundamental oversight that we didn’t even consider would have been to trial different varieties of berries with in these same systems.  It really didn’t occur to us that different varieties might benefit from different systems.  After observing different varieties not in the trials perform in a dramatically different way to the Jewels, it was obvious that we needed to trial more varieties.  

We will continue to use the results of our study for the variety Jewel and do informal studies of the other varieties we like to grow.  We will also continue to reduce weed pressure, trialing different systems for this and will continue to share our results with the larger community of organic farmers in the northeast.

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.