Sustainable Practices for Strawberry Production: Field Demonstration and Virtual Training Program for the Southeast

Project Overview

SPDP22-08
Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2022: $71,481.00
Projected End Date: 06/30/2024
Grant Recipient: University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension
Region: Southern
State: Arkansas
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Amanda McWhirt
University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension
Co-Investigators:
Troyce Barnett
NRCS- Natural Resources Conservation Specialist
Dr. Aaron Cato
University of Arkansas
Dr. Alejandro Rojas
University Of Arkansas Division Of Agriculture

Commodities

No commodities identified

Practices

No practices identified

Proposal abstract:

The PIs have received many requests for information on small-scale sustainable annual plasticulture strawberry production from the Mid-American Strawberry Growers Association, southeastern CES agents and growers in their network. Basic and up-to-date information on the use of sustainable production of strawberries is not currently covered by existing trainings in the Southeast despite great need for the content. Increased understanding of sustainable practices by CES agents will result in greater transfer to growers who will implement practices that promote the health of their farms, families, and communities.

In-field demonstration and virtual field tours will be utilized by our project to increase the capacity of Cooperative Extension Service (CES) agents and Natural Resources Conservations Service (NRCS) personnel to recommend sustainable practices to annual plasticulture strawberry growers in Arkansas and the Southeast. Three in-person field-based trainings will be held throughout the cropping cycle at our research farm and at a grower collaborator farm to tour demonstrations of practices proven to improve the environmental, economic and social sustainability of Southeastern strawberry production, including cover crops, crop rotation, beneficial soil inoculants, biodegradable mulches, efficient water use, and organic and targeted integrated pest management programs.

To expand the reach and lifetime of the project we will then develop three virtual field tours of the field demonstrations to train CES agents across the Southeast. The grower collaborator will be key to providing a grower perspective at each in-person and virtual tour. Printed training materials to support key practices will be developed and provided throughout the trainings.

Project objectives from proposal:

Our target audience is Cooperative Extension Service (CES) agents and Natural Resources Conservations Service (NRCS) agents in Arkansas and CES agents from across the southeastern United States. These agents serve a range of communities and demographics, including underserved producers.

The objectives of this project are:

  1. Effectively train CES and NRCS agents on sustainable practices for annual plasticulture strawberry production to provide support for southeastern strawberry growers in the adoption of these practices. “Seeing is believing” and as such our project will demonstrate the use of summer cover crops, crop rotation, beneficial soil inoculants, biodegradable mulches, efficient water use, and organic and targeted integrated pest management practices in plasticulture strawberry production to train CES and NRCS agents at the University of Arkansas Vegetable Research Station and at a grower collaborator’s farm. At the end of the two-year project a minimum of 25 University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service (UACES), and 30 Arkansas Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) personnel will be trained in three in-person workshops held at the in-field demonstration plots. An additional 60 Southeastern CES agents will be trained in three online virtual field tours of the established demonstration plots. As a result, participants trained will be able to answer questions on small scale sustainable strawberry production with 80% proficiency which will result in increases in recommendations of these practices to their stakeholders. Changes in participant knowledge will be assessed by comparing pre and post-tests of knowledge at both in-person and virtual trainings.
  2. Develop a suite of educational materials to support CES and NRCS agents to advise and support growers in the adoption of sustainable strawberry production practices. Developed materials will include three factsheets, 9 full videos, three mini videos and a webpage housed on the University of Arkansas website and the PIs YouTube channel, which will be produced and shared with CES and NRCS agencies across the Southeast. Three factsheets will highlight production, integrated pest management and soil health practices for sustainable strawberry production. Across this range of outreach materials and platforms, we expect to reach a minimum of 1,000 extension workers, industry personnel, and growers in the region in the second year of the project. These contacts will increase their knowledge of and capacity to implement sustainable practices in small scale annual plasticulture strawberry production systems.
  3. Establish a new Arkansas Discovery Farm site to highlight sustainable strawberry production practices on-farm to growers in Arkansas. The “Arkansas Discovery Farms Program” is designed to demonstrate on-farm effective conservation practices to growers in the region and serve as a model of best management practices. There are currently 12 “Discovery Farms” in Arkansas, only one of which is focused on specialty crops. Collaboration with an Arkansas strawberry grower who effectively integrates sustainable practices into their production systems will reinforce the real-world application of sustainable practices through this training and will contribute to increases in adoption of sustainable practices for small scale strawberry producers in the region and increased in knowledge by UACES and NRCS agents who work on the ground to advise growers daily. The grower collaborator we have identified has a large network, which includes the Mid-American Strawberry Growers Association. Collaboration with the grower and interaction with the growers association will expand the project’s reach to an additional 50 growers in the region. The establishment of a new Discovery Farm has the potential to expand the reach of the project to many more growers across the state in the long-term.
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.