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Kim Ukura, Forum News Service, Published September 27 2013

A ‘berry’ important test: Experiments aim to expand strawberry season in Minnesota

MORRIS, Minn. - On a cool, September 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 outreach center 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 outreach center.

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,” Poppe said. “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.”

Nearly 90 percent of the strawberries consumed in the United States come from growers in California. The remaining 10 percent come from small operations across the country.

Last summer, Poppe and other staff members 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 such as 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 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.

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,” Poppe said.

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,” Nemmers said.

Because of the volume of berries, UMM Dining Services staff members have 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’s coffee shop, Higbies.

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, Poppe said. “I think it’s a win-win situation.”