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Strawberry research in N. Carolina may benefit N.J. growers

AFP Correspondent

New Jersey’s strawberry season sometimes seems to last only the first weekend in June.
It’s actually longer than that, but nowhere near as long as the season in the three top producing states: California, Florida and North Carolina.
Research being done in North Carolina may not lengthen the season, but it could conceivably increase the yield for strawberry growers all over.
As in the Mid-Atlantic, the plots in North Carolina are generally too limited for crop rotation.
In addition, soil pathogens and pests (especially the ubiquitous spider mite) cause many farmers to rely on chemicals to the long-term detriment of the soil.
It’s a goal of crop scientists at North Carolina State in Raleigh, N.C., to find sustainable practices to ensure the long-term health of strawberry farms.
Amanda McWhirt is focusing her Ph.D. research on the National Strawberry Sustainability Initiative’s project which has a goal of implementing sustainable soil methods on strawberry farms.
McWhirt is starting her third year on this project which is funded by a grant from the Walmart Foundation and administered by the University of Arkansas System Division of the Center for Agriculture and Rural Sustainability.
“I’m looking forward to having growers try this out,” McWhirt said in a recent interview.
So far, the project has been on a research field in Goldsboro, N.C.
McWhirt and her crew have planted cover crops on this field.
In the Southeast, planting season for strawberries starts in late September or early October, allowing the plant roots to grow over the cold winter months and flowering to begin in March.
In the cover crop project, McWhirt and her colleagues used pearl miller tand cowpea with a goal of keeping soil healthy and reducing chemical use.
Using these cover crops to prevent soil erosion and provide a break in the crop cycle, the researchers mowed the crops under at the end of summer to add nitrogen and organic matter which also helps with soil health.
“This is a pretty new technique for use in strawberries,” McWhirt was quoted as saying in a press release from the North Carolina State University.
The group planted a control crop without the compost and cover crops for comparison of yield, plant growth and overall soil health, she said.
The second challenge to sustainable strawberry growth is pest control.
“Some farmers will fumigate their fields once each year to rid their fields of soilborne pests, but fumigation sterilizes the soil and kills both bad and good microbes there,” McWhirt said.
The project is attempting to put good microbes back into the soil with compost, cover crops and beneficial inoculants and then will determine if these good microbes are killed by fumigation.
The group is also studying alternatives to chemical mitigation of insect pests, such as good predatory mites that don’t harm plants and a naturally occurring fungus that doesn’t harm plants while it infects harmful mites. So far, not many farmers use these sustainable practices, McWhirt said.
Results were promising on the research station and McWhirt and her colleagues are setting up to work with a farmer who is willing to do all the process they suggest.
“We are hoping to eventually work with one organic and one traditional farmer,” she said. “I’m looking forward to having growers try this out.”
In the third round of the grant, McWhirt indicated that she wants to look at the cost-benefit ratio of the project.
“We have to prove it’s financially feasible,” she said. “We are going to create a production budget and have the farmers plug in their costs.”
Of course, different climates will require tweaking of the cover crops, planting schedules and natural pest mitigation, but the Sustainable Strawberry Project should have far-reaching impact.