Off-season strawberries profitable

When the frost is on the ground, it's strawberry picking time at Indigo Farm on the coast of southeastern North Carolina. While others set out their strawberry plants in the fall for harvest next spring, Sam Bellamy and his family operation are planting for harvest during the holidays.

He's benefiting from the progressive thinking of Gina Fernandez, North Carolina State University Extension small fruits specialist, who came up with a method to trick strawberries into producing season-long. Researchers at Clemson University have also proven the method.

Now in his fifth year of production, Bellamy has a novelty not only among small fruit growers, but also a profitable enterprise. It's like Santa Claus delivered a present of “Christmas berries” to Bellamy via customers who visit his farm on the southeastern North Carolina coast below Wilmington. The climate here is ideally suited for the practice, Fernandez says.

He grows a variety suited to cooler climates under slitted plastic row covers and high tunnels and reaps pints upon pints of sweet strawberries.

“Who would have thought you could grow strawberries in the winter?” Bellamy asks as he bends down to top off another pint of berries.

The key, Fernandez says, is to trick the plants into producing during the off-season.

Producers plug, condition and establish the off-season strawberry plants in the mountains of North Carolina. Bellamy gets the “mountain berries” in the ground on the southeastern coast of North Carolina in mid-September. That date is subject to further research, however.

But obstacles await the plants, even in early fall. Because he's setting out the plants into already established insect and disease pressure, Bellamy has to get the strawberries “up to speed” in a hurry. “You've got to keep in mind that you're setting these plants out with the intention of bringing them into production.” That requirement means keeping temperatures above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Ideally, it should remain above 45 degrees.

When temperatures drop below the 45-degree mark, he uses plastic, slitted row covers and Remay to maintain the ideal temperature for his half-acre of berries. The slit in the plastic is essential to keep the air circulating and avoid moisture and disease.

For the past three years, he's also experimented with high tunnel. The 10-foot high tunnel is large enough to drive a tractor under. (In Italy, almost 100 percent of strawberry production is under high tunnel.) The high tunnel keeps the growing environment a lot drier than the row cover, so a separate irrigation system is required. It also provides a larger volume of heat during the daytime and nighttime. “The plants are less prone to fluctuations in temperatures under the high tunnel,” Fernandez says.

Keeping the plants dry is the best defense against diseases such botrytis. His off-season berries are susceptible to the disease. It's one of the reason he spaces the strawberries farther apart to give them more room to breathe.

As the calendar moves toward late October, Bellamy finds himself covering plants as the sun goes down, and uncovering them as the sun warms up the landscape. “It's labor intensive,” he remarks on one recent late afternoon. “That's one of the reasons I have a half an acre.”

He compares production from last year to this year. “On Nov. 4 last year, I picked 44 pints. This year, on Nov. 12, I picked 220 pints. That's a big jump.

“With 20 acres, what would you do with all that production?” he asks rhetorically.

Currently, Bellamy and Bob Hall of York, S.C., are the only producers using the method out in the field. Others are growing off-season strawberries in the greenhouse.

For Bellamy, the goal is to recoup most of his expenses before New Years. “Then with the spring crop we can make money.” Holiday sales, those from Thanksgiving through New Years make that goal possible. Last year, he had off-season berries through the end of April. In most years, he'll let the plants rest in January and February and resume picking in March.

Holiday sales are good, he says. “The quality is really good.”

By planting a cool season variety such as Sweet Charlie, Bellamy is introducing his customers to the idea that, “a strawberry is not just a strawberry.”

“It's just like when you go to the grocery store and see a Granny Smith apple and a Braeburn apple — they have different tastes,” Bellamy says. “Strawberries are really the same way. Sweet Charlie doesn't have as much acid in it. The flavor still comes through real sweet.

“There's a whole world out there that can be done by working with plant varieties and understanding how they work,” Bellamy says.

“I'm amazed at the world of agriculture,” he says. “There are so many things that aren't explored and they don't have to be radical. They're right here under our noses — they just have to be explored.”

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