WCROC harvests strawberries in September
MORRIS – On a cool, September Monday morning, volunteers at the West Central Research and Outreach Center were out in the garden picking strawberries.
After being counted, weighed and tested, those strawberries made their way to the cafeteria at Morris Area Elementary School, where students enjoyed fresh, organic, locally produced fruits with their lunch.
A new experimental growing system for strawberries is being tested at the WCROC and four other sites in Minnesota that may help expand the strawberry season in the state.
Traditionally, strawberry season begins in early- to mid-June and lasts between two and four weeks, said Steve Poppe, horticulture scientist at the WCROC.
Strawberry plants grown in the low tunnel system start producing fruit in late July and may still be active past the first light frost.
“I’m really excited that we’re offering a fruit,” said Poppe. “We’re in an area in the upper Midwest where it’s somewhat difficult to grow fruit, reliably. Here we’re offering fruit in a very non-traditional time, and that’s so exciting with the local foods initiative.”
Today, nearly 90 percent of the strawberries consumed in the United States come from growers in California. The remaining 10 percent come from small operations spread out across the country.
Last summer, Poppe and other staff experimented with the low tunnel growing process to see how it might work. During their trial, they harvested strawberries into October. After learning some lessons, Poppe and researchers like Dr. Emily Hoover at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, began the first official year of a two-year study on low-tunnel strawberries.
One of the challenges of the low tunnel system is the time and maintenance that it takes. Like other strawberry plots, these include a raised bed, which helps keep the soil warm, with irrigation tubes running through the bed. The beds are covered by a piece of plastic – white on the outside to keep the plants cooler and black on the bottom to keep weed seeds from germinating. Metal hoops help hold the clear plastic cover to create the “tunnel” the plants thrive in.
“There’s a lot of extra work with these low tunnels,” said Poppe.
This summer, strong winds tested the tunnels. During one major storm, the field was completely destroyed. After rigging a more secure system, the tunnels survived a second, lower ferocity storm.
The tunnels at the three other tests sites – the U of M’s St. Paul campus and two local farms, Audrey Lesmeister and Mary Jo and Luverne Forbord – have faced challenges with the late spring and stormy weather.
Once the strawberries are collected, researchers measure the sugar levels, yields and fruit size for six different varieties. So far, yields for the different varieties of strawberries being grown on the plot have been very good, and the berries have been big, juicy and sweet.
“We’re excited about that – we have a sweeter strawberry,” said Poppe.
Strawberries from the project have also found their way into the kitchens at the University of Minnesota, Morris and gone over “really, really well” with students and staff, said Tony Nemmers, general manager of UMM Dining Services.
“People are excited they’re locally grown, and students are eating a lot of them,” said Nemmers.
Because of the volume of berries, UMM Dining Services staff has used a blast chiller to freeze many of the berries so they can be used throughout the school year. This winter, the frozen strawberries will be made into sauces and included in smoothies from the campus’ coffee shop, Higbies.
“WCROC strawberries have been the only strawberries on campus since August,” said Nemmers.
The public can get a taste of strawberries from the WCROC next week at the Pride of the Prairie Fall Feast on Tuesday, Sept. 24 at the UMM Dining Hall. Nemmers said the berries will be included in a salad and strawberry shortcake.
Another key part of the initiative is to help “grow” more strawberry growers who may use the low-tunnel system or traditional June strawberries. The project involves graduate students and survey work through the Center for Small Towns to help develop e-learning tools for new growers to learn about how to farm strawberries in a sustainable way.
“I don’t think this type of system is made for large acreage, I think it’s just small, mom and pop, operations” who may sell at local farmers markets in the area, said Poppe. “I think it’s a win-win situation.”
More information on the project can be found online at http://fruit.cfans.umn.edu/.