Advancing Strawberry Production in the Northeast

Progress report for LNE20-403

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2020: $213,997.00
Projected End Date: 10/31/2023
Grant Recipients: UNH Cooperative Extension; Cornell University
Region: Northeast
State: New Hampshire
Project Leader:
Dr. Rebecca Sideman
UNH Cooperative Extension
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Project Information

Performance Target:

100 growers with a total of 50 acres of fruiting strawberries will each adopt one new practice to increase yields, fruit quality and/or winter survival of strawberries, prolong the fruiting season, and reduce pesticide applications or labor. 50 growers will report an average increase in annual revenues of $2000 each.

Introduction:

Problem & Justification: Over 2,700 farms in the Northeast produce strawberry as a high-value crop marketed through retail, wholesale, and pick-your-own channels.  Many growers continue to use the traditional matted row system of growing strawberries. Others are using plastic mulch to improve weed management and boost yields, but have encountered new challenges (e.g. winter survival and runner removal). Several new tools for strawberry producers are now available, including smaller protective structures, new photoselective films and rowcovers, and new cultivars; but few have been systematically tested for the climate and unique management practices used in the Northeast. This has resulted in a poor understanding of how they perform in the Northeast. Barriers to success for strawberry growers in the region include difficulty establishing, overwintering and maintaining healthy plants, lack of information about profitability and regional relevance of new production systems, varieties and technologies, and labor limitations on diversified farms.   

Solution & Approach: We propose to advance strawberry production in the Northeast by: (1) providing highly accessible, specialized education about new, emerging, and tried-and-true strawberry production practices that are likely to improve growers’ profitability, (2) conducting research specifically designed to answer common questions that are directly impeding grower success, and (3) to characterize the innovative and diverse production systems being used by strawberry growers throughout the Northeast through a series of grower interviews.

Our educational approach includes: 1) A revised and updated Strawberry Production Guide for the Northeast, Midwest and Eastern Canada (NRAES-88) to include several recent developments in strawberry production; 2) Webinars addressing critical and emerging practices to help new and experienced growers succeed with strawberry production; 3) Regional strawberry production tours, grower workshops, and twilight meetings to demonstrate innovative practices and facilitate farmer-to-farmer information exchange; and 4) Presentations at regional conferences to share research results and further promote farmer-to-farmer interactions.

Our three research objectives are: 1) To compare rowcovers of varying thickness and different application times for winter protection of June-bearing plasticulture strawberries; 2) To evaluate the effects of low tunnels on yield and quality of June-bearing strawberries in on-farm experiments; 3) To identify opportunities and challenges associated with different strawberry production systems in New England and New York through a series of interviews of strawberry growers.

Milestones & Performance Target:  Four grower-cooperators and 30 interviewees will be directly involved in project activities, and over 500 strawberry growers and 20 agricultural service providers will participate in events and use resources developed by the project. Ultimately, over 100 growers (covering >50 acres) will adopt practices that: increase yields, fruit quality and/or winter survival of strawberries, prolong the fruiting season, and reduce pesticide applications or labor, resulting in 50 producers increasing their annual crop revenues by an average of $2000 per farm.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Dr. Elisabeth Hodgdon (Educator and Researcher)
  • Laura McDermott (Educator)
  • Kaitlyn Orde (Educator and Researcher)
  • Dr. David Conner (Educator and Researcher)
  • Dr. Marvin Pritts (Educator and Researcher)
  • Dr. David Handley (Educator and Researcher)

Research

Hypothesis:

Hypotheses:

  1. The use of heavier (vs. lighter) weight rowcover will increase winter survival of strawberries; and earlier fall application of rowcover will increase yields of June-bearing strawberry the following year.
  2. Covering June-bearing strawberry plants with low tunnels between bloom and harvest will results in increased marketable yields and fruit quality compared with uncovered plants.
  3. Growers in the Northeast employ many innovative and customized strawberry production systems, and a better understanding of these systems and growers’ experiences and perceptions will help other growers make informed decisions to optimize their own strawberry production system, and will help inform future research needs.
Materials and methods:

Experiment 1. Rowcovers for winter protection. This experiment will be conducted at two research station sites: Durham, NH (USDA hardiness zone 5b) and Peru, NY (zone 5a).

Treatments. Our six (6) treatments will include:

  • Straw applied late (Nov) – the control (current industry standard) treatment
  • 0.9 oz/yd2 applied early (Sept), plus another 0.9 oz applied late (Nov)
  • 0.9 oz/yd2 applied late (Nov) – the “standard” recommended for warmer sites
  • 1.2 oz/yd2 applied late (Nov) – the “standard” recommended for colder sites
  • 1.2 oz/yd2 applied early (Sept)
  • 1.2 oz/yd2 applied early (Sept), plus another 1.2 oz/yd2 applied late (Nov)

Within each treatment, we will plant 24-plant subplots of three of the most commonly grown June-bearing cultivars spanning early, mid, and late-season.

Methods. Strawberry plants will be grown on black-plastic mulched raised beds with drip irrigation. Plants will be planted in double staggered rows 12 inches apart with in-row spacing of 12 inches, for a standard plasticulture plant density (17,000 plants per acre). For the main experiment with four replicates, we will establish dormant bare-root crowns in mid-summer. Runners will be removed monthly in the planting year as is typical in a plasticulture system. Standard fertilization practices will be used, and pests will be managed using a low-input approach. Two guard rows, one on either side of the main experiment, will be planted with plant plug plants in mid-August. These rows will also be covered with the six (6) cover treatments. Although only replicated twice, this will provide observational data for winter survival for plug plants, which some growers are starting to use. Winter rowcovers will be applied “early” (by late-September), “late” (once plants are fully dormant around mid-November), or “early + late”, depending on cover treatment. The “early + late” treatment will be a double layer of rowcover. Straw will be applied over straw treatments at the same time as “late” rowcover is applied. Cover treatments will be removed as soon as strawberries start to put on new growth (mid-March) to avoid promoting early flowering. A preliminary experimental plan is provided.

Data collection & analysis. We will collect data on pre- and post-covering plant vigor and plant survival. For each subplot, we will also observe date of first flower and will harvest fruit to calculate total yield and to determine fruiting period. Appropriate statistical analyses will be conducted to assess differences between treatments. 

Grower input. We chose to conduct this experiment in response to significant interest by growers and extension professionals interviewed during proposal development. We will continue to seek grower and advisor input on the experimental plan and variety choice.

Experiment 2. Low tunnels to increase fruit quality in June-bearing strawberry. This experiment will be conducted on grower-collaborator farms in NY and NH. We will select at least two (and up to four) grower collaborators to host these trials.

Treatments. Our two treatments are: uncovered (no low tunnel) and covered (low tunnel). We will use a commercial low tunnel system made of galvanized steel hoops covered with an appropriate low tunnel film for strawberry (1.5 mil polyethylene with ventilation holes on the lower 12” of the tunnel). We will establish three low tunnels in various locations in grower fields, and will use adjacent uncovered rows of the same cultivar for comparison. 

Methods. Growers will use their standard practices. Strawberries may either be grown using matted-row or plasticulture systems, but must be June-bearing plants in the fruiting year. Project team members will install low tunnels on farms and provide training on how to manage them. The low tunnels will be installed just prior to bloom and will remain in place until the end of the fruiting season. The project PI already owns most of the necessary low tunnel components (hoops, grounding stakes, and anchor pipes) from a recent low tunnel project.

Data collection & analysis. Grower collaborators will harvest fruit and collect yield data from the low tunnel and uncovered plots; but project team members will visit each site weekly during the harvest season to collect fruit from small subsamples from low tunnel and uncovered plots to compare fruit quality (percent marketable and unmarketable fruit) and yields, to make observations, and to record participants’ perceptions of the low tunnels. Additionally, we will track labor hours involved in installing and removing the low tunnels to determine whether yield benefits outweigh the added labor costs.

Farmer input. Growers and extension professionals interviewed during proposal development had divergent opinions about both the value of low tunnels, and the desire to use them. We plan to implement this experiment on farms who have a strong desire to use low tunnels, and grower-cooperators will continue to refine these on-farm experiments to ensure that they meet grower-cooperator goals. Two of our grower-advisors have expressed an interest in hosting these experiments, but we will reach out to additional growers and plan to support four (4) on-farm experiments.

Experiment 3. Characterize the innovative and diverse production systems being used by strawberry growers throughout the Northeast through a series of case-study interviews. The objective of this experiment is to determine which farm characteristics are correlated with the feasibility of different strawberry production systems. Information from our interviews will be used to develop a grower decision-making tool to assist in choosing strawberry production systems. Further, increasing our understanding of how strawberry production systems are customized and the pros and cons for each will help areas where additional work is needed.

Methods: Using our existing relationships and extension contacts throughout the region, we will identify approximately 30 farmers currently using one or more of the production methods of interest (i.e., high or low tunnels, field production; June bearing or day-neutral varieties, perennial or annual, plasticulture). These interviews will take place by phone or on-farm. These farmers will be selected using a maximum diversity sampling technique, reflecting a number of dimensions including farm scale, markets used, experience, diversity of crops.

Data collection and analysis: To capture farm and strawberry production characteristics, we will ask growers about: why they adopted their system, other systems they tried in the past, their current strawberry crop production practices (system type, soil fertility, and pest management), strawberry yield and fruit quality, labor, cash flow, pests, fertility, and market outlets. Following the interviews, we will use a coding system to categorize the responses and a thematic analysis of the interview data to identify trends in strawberry system choice and satisfaction. We will use significant themes from the data to inform our decision-making tool. For example, if small-scale growers are more likely to grow low tunnel berries and report higher satisfaction with their system compared with larger scale growers, we may conclude that low tunnels are most appropriate for small scale producers.

Farmer input: The interview questions were adapted from Conner and Demchak (2018). Questions were revised to reflect the array of methods to be tested as well as to reflect farmers’ feedback and interest when the results of Conner and Demchak were presented at the MidAtlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention in Hershey, PA in January 2019. 

Additional information: All required approvals for Human Subjects in Research will be obtained through the University of New Hampshire Institutional Review Board prior to beginning this work.

Research results and discussion:

2020 Research Activities

Experiments 1 &2. Due to COVID-19, we were unable to establish Experiments 1 and 2 as we had originally planned for 2020. However, both will be implemented in 2021.

Experiment 3. Approximately 76 growers who responded to the survey described in Milestone 1 (below) provided their name and indicated that they would be willing to be interviewed in detail about their strawberry production system, as described for experiment 3. The interview protocols are currently being drafted, and will be submitted for IRB approval in winter 2021.

Additional Experiment 1A. In early summer, we received approval to conduct seasonal research and we designed and implemented a pilot experiment to provide additional information about rowcovers used for overwintering strawberries. We procured six commercial rowcovers used for overwintering, varying in brand (Agribon, Typar, Novagryl, Covertan), weight (0.6-1.2 oz/yd2), and light transmission (50-82%), and established these in a replicated experiment over an established oat cover crop. We placed temperature sensors under the covers, and included a bare ground and a straw-mulched control. We hypothesize that there will be appreciable differences in the protective ability of these cover treatments, and that this will be evident in soil and air temperature data, as well as in possible survival of the oat cover crop (which normally winterkills without supplemental protection in our area). We will also be able to estimate the ability of these covers to provide protection against spring frosts by documenting temperature differences compared with unprotected sensors. This will provide excellent data for producers and will inform our cover choice when we establish Experiment 1 in fall 2021.

Participation Summary

Education

Educational approach:

Our multi-faceted educational approach was designed in consultation with grower advisors throughout the region to meet their needs for flexible, accessible and specialized information about new and emerging strawberry production practices. It includes:

  • a needed update to the definitive guide for strawberry production in the Northeast, including a grower’s toolkit, detailing best management practices (production methods, use of tunnels and varieties) according to a farm’s capacity, scale, markets and goals
  • twelve focused webinars addressing new & emerging production and management topics (recorded and archived)
  • two 1-2 day regional tours of strawberry producers for growers and agricultural professionals, and at least three farmer-to-farmer exchange opportunities including twilight meetings at commercial and research farms.
  • at least eight presentations at in-person grower workshops at state and regional vegetable & berry association meetings and conferences 

2020 Teaching Activities

While COVID-19 limited our abilities to complete some research and teaching activities, we made excellent progress towards one of our main educational objectives. In May 2020, we began to update the Strawberry Production Guide for the Northeast, Midwest, and Canada. We assembled a team of reviewers, and invited contributors where outside expertise was necessary. As of January 2021, half of the guide chapters have been revised, and we have a plan of attack that should enable us to complete the revision ahead of schedule, by the end of 2021.

 

Milestones

Milestone #1 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

600 Participants receive a preliminary survey about their current strawberry production practices and challenges; 150 return it. Results are used to refine educational program objectives and to provide baseline data before the start of the project.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
150
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
10
Actual number of farmer beneficiaries who participated:
216
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
8
Proposed Completion Date:
December 31, 2020
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

We developed a baseline survey with the objective of identifying extension and research needs as well as current practices used by growers throughout the northeastern U.S. and Canada. After obtaining IRB approval, the survey was distributed to as estimated 2500 individuals throughout the northeastern U.S. and Canada. We relied on extension networks and received assistance from colleagues in all New England states, NY, PA, and eastern Canada. Between Dec 1-Jan 10, 2021, we received 119 complete responses out of a total of 224 respondents who began the survey. We have decided to keep the survey open until Feb 1, 2021, and will then close the survey, summarize the data, and prepare a research report and manuscript describing our results.

Milestone #2 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

Growers agree to serve as on-farm research cooperators who work with project staff to evaluate the effects of low tunnels on June-bearing strawberry yields & quality.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
4
Proposed Completion Date:
February 15, 2021
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

We have identified four grower-cooperators who intend to host trials to evaluate the effects of low tunnels on June-bearing strawberry. These trials will be set up and take place in May-June 2021.

Milestone #3 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

Growers agree to be interviewed to characterize the nature of strawberry production systems throughout the region.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
30
Proposed Completion Date:
February 15, 2021
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

Approximately 76 growers who responded to the survey described in milestone 1 provided their name and indicated that they would be willing to be interviewed in detail about their strawberry production system. 

The interview protocols are currently being drafted, and will be submitted for IRB approval in winter 2021.

Milestone #4 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

Participants will attend educational events in NH and NY (webinars, demonstrations, workshops, twilight meetings, etc.) and learn about strawberry production systems, insect and disease management and soil health.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
250
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
10
Proposed Completion Date:
March 31, 2021
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, planning for this milestone has not yet been initiated. Our thinking as of January 2021 is that we will postpone this activity until summer 2022, in hopes that the situation will permit such activities at that time.

Milestone #5 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

10 growers and 10 agricultural service providers attend a 1-2 day regional tour of strawberry producers.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
10
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
10
Proposed Completion Date:
August 31, 2021
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, planning for this milestone has not yet been initiated. Our thinking as of January 2021 is that we will postpone this activity until summer 2022, in hopes that the situation will permit such activities at that time.

Milestone #6 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

Participants will attend educational events in NH and NY (webinars, demonstrations, workshops, twilight meetings, etc.) and learn about strawberry production systems, insect and disease management, soil health, and other strawberry production subjects, including project research results.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
250
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
10
Proposed Completion Date:
March 31, 2022
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

Work towards this milestone has not yet begun.

Milestone #7 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

10 growers and 10 agricultural service providers attend a second 1-2 day regional tour of strawberry producers.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
10
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
10
Proposed Completion Date:
August 31, 2022
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

Work towards this milestone has not yet begun.

Milestone #8 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

Participants will attend educational events in NH and NY (webinars, demonstrations, workshops, twilight meetings, etc.) and learn about strawberry production systems, insect and disease management, soil health, and other strawberry production subjects, including project research results.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
250
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
10
Proposed Completion Date:
March 31, 2023
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

Work towards this milestone has not yet begun.

Milestone #9 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

Participants receive an end-of-project follow-up survey about their current strawberry production practices and challenges; 150 return it. Data will be compiled to assess project impact.

Proposed number of farmer beneficiaries who will participate:
150
Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
10
Proposed Completion Date:
October 31, 2023
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

Work towards this milestone has not yet begun.

Milestone Activities and Participation Summary

15 Consultations
1 Journal articles

Participation Summary

216 Farmers
8 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities

Performance Target Outcomes

Target #1

Target: number of farmers:
100
Target: change/adoption:

100 growers with a total of 50 acres of fruiting strawberries will each adopt one new practice to increase yields, fruit quality and/or winter survival of strawberries, prolong the fruiting season, and reduce pesticide applications or labor. 50 growers will report an average increase in annual revenues of $2000 each.

Target: amount of production affected:

50 acres

Target: quantified benefit(s):

50 producers increase their annual crop revenues by an average of $2000 per farm

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.