By tricking strawberry plants into acting like spring has arrived, University of Florida scientists are helping North Florida growers produce a crop in November when market prices are high and other U.S. production areas are not harvesting fruit.
"Basically, the process involves putting young strawberry plants in refrigerated trailers for about two weeks, making them think they've been through the required winter chilling period," said David Dinkins, Bradford County extension director with UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Dinkins and Mike Sweat, Baker County extension director in MacClenny, are working on the project with five growers in the area. Dinkins said studies at UF's North Florida Research and Education Center in Live Oak have consistently identified the cooling requirement as a major obstacle to North Florida strawberry production at this time of year. If strawberries were planted outdoors in September, they would not receive needed chilling to set fruit.
In the past two months, about 14,000 young plants have been placed in a refrigerated trailer for two-week periods with artificial light and controlled irrigation. Temperatures inside the trailer are maintained at 50 degrees Fahrenheit at night and 70 F degrees during the day. High-intensity "grow" lights are used 12 hours daily.
After refrigeration, the plants are moved outdoors to fields where they are expected to begin setting a crop for late November harvest, Dinkins said.
The chilling method, if found to be successful and viable, not only could create new niches on the strawberry calendar, it also would carve a new spot on the berry map.
Frost problems pushed Florida strawberry production south to the Plant City area in Hillsborough County many decades ago. Production in California, the nation's largest growing region, peaks in late spring, driving the price of a 12-pound flat of strawberries to $8 or less.
"The cost of running a refrigerated trailer with lights is about $10 a day, which is affordable if growers can get $25 or more per flat," Dinkins said. "If North Florida growers can produce berries November through January, they can make a decent profit and hopefully stay in business."
Larry Gillard, one of the growers participating in the tests, already has moved 4,000 plants from a refrigerated trailer to his field in Lawtey in Bradford County. He is growing three varieties, Sweet Charlie, Camarosa and Aromas. The strawberries will be harvested before Thanksgiving and marketed under the "Larry's Berries" label.
"Until now, this kind of production practice has never been tried on a commercial basis in Florida, and we're hopeful it will work for us -- so far, the crop looks good," Gillard said. "It's hard to believe, but the Lawtey area used to be one of the top strawberry production areas in the United States, and this new production method may put us back on the map."
An aggressive marketing program, including special product labeling, is being developed by Suzanne Stapleton, extension agent at the Live Oak center, to make sure produce buyers and consumers know about the new North Florida crop.
Dinkins and other UF faculty are monitoring progress of the strawberry project, recording data on everything from production problems and fruit quality to costs and marketing opportunities. Consumer surveys also are planned. All data will be available at the North Florida Research and Education Center Web site: http://nfrec-sv.ifas.ufl.edu
The one-year UF demonstration project is being supported by a $10,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. The UF project competed for funding with more than 200 other proposals from 13 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin islands.
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