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

Project Overview

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

Annual Reports

Commodities

  • Fruits: berries (strawberries)

Practices

  • Education and Training: on-farm/ranch research
  • Farm Business Management: budgets/cost and returns, feasibility study
  • Sustainable Communities: sustainability measures

    Proposal summary:

    Organic strawberries sell.  Whether at market, a farm stand or through wholesale outlets, few crops have the potential to generate cash flow for small farms like organic strawberries.  Unfortunately, few crops cost as much to produce.  Recent advances in production systems have the potential to cut these costs relative to yields but no comparative study exists to guide organic strawberry growers in selecting a system.             At Joe’s Brook Farm we propose to build a study comparing input costs and yields for three common systems: 1) matted row, 2) plug plasticulture, and 3) bare root/dormant crown plasticulture.  Our hope is that the results of this study will help guide our farm and others in selecting a production system.            Comparison studies to date focus primarily on matted row vs. plug plasticulture.  Others focus on plug vs. dormant crown plasticulture production.  We found no studies comparing systems for organic production.            We will set up a controlled experiment for the three systems using the common, proven and popular strawberry variety Jewel.   We will catalog all inputs from pre-plant through establishment, through maintenance and on to harvest and clean up.  We will also record harvest yields and fruit quality.            We will establish plants during the 2016 season for a 2017 harvest.  Outreach will begin that winter with presentations at venues like the New England Vegetable and Berry Association winter conference in Manchester, NH.   

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Research question

    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.

    Methods

    We will establish a 1000 plant planting of Jewel strawberries for each system. The variety Jewel is ideal because it has excellent flavor, is a high yielder, a decent shipper, and performs well in organic systems. It is also available from Nourse farms as a bare root plant and from Nova Fruit in Canada as a plug. The three plantings will be referred to as the following: plug plasticulture, bare root plasticulture, and matted row.

    All plantings will receive the following treatment. These practices will be considered the controls in this study.

    We will prepare a field with the appropriate organic amendments according to soil tests. Field soil type is loamy sand with two percent organic matter. The field has never had strawberries in it and has moderate weed pressure from annual and perennial grasses. Bed formation will occur using a NOLTS plastic mulch bed former for four foot plastic with high flow 8mil 6” double drip, 16” apart buried 2 to 4 inches below the soil. This creates a 4” raised bed about 36” wide. Soil moisture will be maintained at 70-90% throughout the growing season. Bed length is a maximum 500 feet long with 60-inch bed centers. We will use a rotovator to remove weeds in pathways. Plants will be mulched with straw through the winter. Straw will be removed to the pathways in early spring along with old and dead strawberry leaves and runners. We will frost protect as needed with overhead irrigation and will supply additional nitrogen through drip with fish emulsion during fruit development and ripening. We will not spray any controls for insects or disease, given the questionable effectiveness of many organic sprays. Berries will be picked every other day during ripening by the farm field crew into quarts.

    The following treatment will differ to meet the requirements of each production system. These practices will be considered the variables in this study.

    Bare root plasticulture—The bed will be formed and laid with 4 foot, 1.25 mil black plastic. 1000 Jewel plants will be sourced from Nourse farms. Plants will be 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 will be removed by hand every other week from June through August. Weeds will be removed from plant holes and plastic edges by hand during bloom and runner removal. Following fruiting, plants will be mowed to enable the pulling up of plastic and drip.

    Matted row—In a twist from traditional matted row systems we will establish our planting with drip tape so that all three systems are controlled for moisture. We will plant 1000 bare root Jewel plants from Nourse in May by hand, 12” apart in a single row down the center of the bed. Blooms will be removed and runners will be set to fill out the bed to 30” in width, approximately 4-6 runners/ plant. Additional runners will be removed. In bed weed control will be performed with hoes and by hand. Drip will be removed and the bed will be harrowed under following the end of fruiting.

    Plug plasticulture—We will fallow 1, 500’ bed for the spring and early summer season before adding the required amendments. The bed will be formed and laid with 4 foot wide 1.25 mil microembossed black plastic. 1000 Jewel plants from Nova Fruit will be planted the first week in September, 12” apart in 2 rows , 6” to 8” from the edge of the plastic in an alternating pattern. No runner or bloom removal is required. The bed will be covered with a single layer of 1.25 ounce Typar row cover from late September till straw application in late November or December. Following fruiting, plants will be mowed to enable the pulling up and disposal of plastic and drip.

    Record keeping
    We will hire an additional crewmember, a portion of whose job will be to manage the record keeping for this study. The position will be called study manager. The study manager will work with our technical advisor to create spreadsheets for each planting to keep track of costs and harvest data. These will form the heart of our enterprise analysis. The study manager will enter expenses and income as they are generated, often in the field as the crew performs tasks. An additional crewmember will be trained in data collection to step in if the study manager is absent.
    We will record the following items for each of the three groups or planting systems. The expense and income categories are adapted from Lantz et al. Table 2.1.

    Income: Quarts of strawberries
    Expenses:
    SOIL PREP AND MACHINERY COSTS(at $20.00/hour)–plowing, rototilling, fertilizer
    application, plastic and drip laying, cultivating.
    FERTILIZER—dry fertilizer, soluble fertilizer
    SUPPLIES AND MATERIALS—Black plastic, drip tape, plant cost, harvest containers,
    flats, straw
    LABOR (hours @ $12.00)—planting, irrigation management, bloom removal, runner
    removal, hand weeding, hoeing, row cover management, straw application, straw
    removal, frost management, harvesting, bed removal.
    FIXED COSTS—land charge, equipment percentage

    We will also develop a survey to be performed by each crew member following the completion of each harvest. The survey will be developed with the assistance of our technical advisor and will ask the crew to rate the picking conditions, quality of pick-able fruit, harvest ease, amount of rotten fruit, amount of tarnish plant bug damage, amount of other insect damage, presence of leaf spot, berry flavor etc. according to a predetermined scale. Fundamentally, we will record the number of quarts picked for each planting for each harvest date.

    Following planting we will extrapolate the data from 1000 plants to a 1 acre planting to determine the following for each system: total return per acre, return per quart, return per pound, and return per plant. This information will be organized along with the results of the crew survey and made available to the larger agricultural community.

    Timeline

    Farm management will order plants, fertilizer and field supplies for the study over the winter of 2016. We will also meet with our technical advisor to design our record keeping spreadsheets and survey, and hire a Study Manager. The Study Manager will begin entering supply and material costs as they are generated over the winter.

    Beginning the spring of 2016 farm crew will log all equipment hours performed in the strawberries with the Study Manager. Once berry planting begins, the study manager or their back up, will be present in the berries, working with the crew when appropriate, to accurately log hours. Labor spread sheets for the actions listed in the methods section will contain start time, stop time, and number of crew-members present to make record keeping easier. Data in the field will be taken clipboard and transferred to a computer located in our pack house at the end of the day by the Study Manager. We will also schedule a site visit with our technical advisor in June of 2016 to review our controls and go over proper record keeping techniques with the Study Manager.

    Harvest begins June of 2017 with the study manager or back up always present in the field to record harvesting hours and yields. We will schedule another site visit with our technical advisor during harvest. It is significant to note that following our initial harvest we will eliminate the plantings. Research and our own experience suggests that with organic production we are better off rotating berries out of the field after a single fruiting year rather then let weed pressure and disease pressure build, even if it means establishing an entire strawberry crop every single season.

    Following harvest we will meet with our technical advisor to review and organize data. We will then focus on finishing out the season strong, getting back to our outreach preparation that fall for winter delivery.

    It is worth noting that during the study period we will be growing an additional half-acre to an acre of berries for our existing markets. We will place maintenance priority on the study plots to ensure that the individual systems can flourish in the best conditions possible. While we can and will try and sell berries from the trial plots, they are not intended to replace or be a substitute for our farms larger annual berry plantings.

    Outreach plan

    We would like to present our findings as a farm at the New England Vegetable and Berry Conference in Manchester, scheduled for 2017. This biannual conference is attended by thousands of farmers and industry professionals and has a designated session on strawberries featuring several presenters. It would be the single best way to both present our results while interacting with other growers. Once the study is underway we will contact David Handley who organizes the strawberry sessions to see if he is interested in having us. If we are unable to present there, we can present at the NOFA Vermont winter conference and write an article for the trade magazine Growing for Market. We have made provisions in the budget for these outreach venues.

     

    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.