North Carolina strawberries cold spring viruses

STRAWBERRIES in North Carolina arrived two to three weeks later than usual to farmers markets, like this one in Raleigh, N.C.

Cold weather, viruses slowed North Carolina strawberry crop

• The harvest season will run two to three weeks later than normal in the Piedmont of North Carolina • Strawberry mild yellow edge (SMYEV) and strawberry mottle virus (SMoV) were found in a number of fields in Virginia, North Carolina and Florida.

It was a very cold spring for North Carolina strawberries, and as a result it is going to be a late than-normal harvest season, said Andy Myers, Crop Research Operations manager at the Piedmont North Carolina Research Station in Salisbury, N.C.

“We did a lot of frost protection this year,” he said. “We may not have had as much frost here as in eastern North Carolina, but it was more than normal,” he said.

And it kept up late. When Southeast Farm Press spoke to him on Good Friday, Myers noted that the station staff had frost protected five of the last six days, including that one. “It was 24 degrees at 4 a.m., and we had been freeze protecting all night.”

There were a few frosts the week ending April 7 in other strawberry-producing areas of the state.

The harvest season will run two to three weeks later than normal in the Piedmont of North Carolina, Myers predicted.

Strawberry yield was reduced in Virginia, North Carolina and Florida by two aphid-borne viruses that rarely occur in strawberries in the Southeast. Strawberry mild yellow edge (SMYEV) and strawberry mottle virus (SMoV) were found in a number of fields in Virginia, North Carolina and Florida.

There were few control measures available, other than aphid control.

A region-wide yield loss estimate is not yet available, but one widely quoted projection indicated that in North Carolina, 12 percent of the state’s acres in strawberries were affected by the viruses, reducing production by four percent.

But a good muscadine grape crop could be on the way despite the weather.

“Vines have just started to ‘break’ the bud, “said Whit Jones, a retired Extension agent in southeast North Carolina. (Bud break is the start of a grape vine’s annual growth cycle). “The buds are starting to grow (in early April) and put on leaves.

“This will probably be a later season than we are used to, but cold weather didn’t affect the vines that much.”

Muscadines are not a spring- blooming crop and in fact don’t actually bloom until the first of June, Jones said. So the cold winter affects them less than some other fruit crops. “I don’t see any weather damage at all,” Jones said.

Easter standstill

The crop was at a standstill at Easter. “The growers are waiting. They have pruned the vines, and there is nothing else to do until they break buds.”

Jones is hoping for another good crop this year. “Last year’s wasn’t a record crop, but it was a good one. We had a little more rain than we needed, and fruit rot was apparent in some varieties. But we still did quite well.”

Ryan Patterson of Broadway, N.C., has a way of dealing with the cold winter. He grows his tomatoes in a greenhouse and can provide heat as needed.

But a little different management was required this season.

“We can keep the vines warm and provide enough fertilizer and water to meet the crop’s needs,” said Patterson. “But we can’t make up for the lack of sunshine, and that is what happened this year.”

The season got off to a good start but then there was a lot of cloudy weather.

“It slowed things down. When the sun doesn’t shine, the pollination isn’t as good, and flowers may not open.”

By the beginning of March, Patterson said his tomatoes were turning out reasonably well. “But we ended up with smaller fruit and some that were off shaped.”

It can affect shelf life, but as of early April, this year’s tomatoes were holding up fine at the grocery stores he sells to. He guarantees them to hold for 14 days.

Patterson sells his tomatoes in higher-end grocery stores and to an organization called the “Sandhills Farm to Table” cooperative. It runs a CSA program, in which subscribers buy a box of fruit and vegetables each week during the season.

Sometimes late in the season, he will sell some tomatoes to strawberry producers who are selling direct to the public.

He also grows a few cucumbers in the greenhouse. “We sell most of them from a (self-serve) box out on Dad’s front lawn, mostly for local customers. They fit in well with our tomatoes.”

It costs Patterson substantially less now to heat his tomatoes thanks to the biomass- fired boiler/burners he began using for the greenhouses and also his tobacco flue-curing barns starting in 2010 (“How to cut the high cost of curing tobacco,” March 2, 2012).

“The boilers have cut the fuel needs dramatically,” he said. “We pay a fraction of what heating with LP gas or natural gas would cost.”

He sources most of his chips from companies that refurbish wood pallets or that build sweet potato boxes. “They have scraps left over and turn them into chips. Chips are reasonable now.”

The boilers have made an equally significant improvement in the cost of curing tobacco. “We have been able to cure a barn for $58 a barn.” That is substantially less than were we spending before. It was a big upfront cost but we will probably payback in three years.”

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