An enterprise analysis of three organic strawberry production systems in northeastern Vermont
Strawberries can be fundamental to the success of a startup organic farm marketing direct to consumers. Unfortunately, few crops cost as much, or are as difficult, to produce. Recent advances in production systems have the potential to cut these costs relative to yields but no comparative study exists to guide start up organic strawberry growers in selecting a system.
At Joe’s Brook Farm we worked with Heather Bryant of New Hampshire extension to build a study comparing input costs and yields for four common systems: 1) matted row, 2) plug plasticulture, 3) bare root plasticulture with runners removed and 4) bare root plasticulture with runners set. 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.
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 is yet to come with our harvest quality and yield observations during the 2017 season. Other farmers have already expressed interest in the results.
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 can’t wait to compare yields in the 2017 fruiting season.
UNH Extension Field Specialist, Food and Agriculture and county office administrator
University of New Hampshire Extension
3855 Dartmouth College Highway Box 5
North Haverhill, NH 03774-4909
Office Phone: (603) 787-6944