By Kathleen Phillips
Having fresh, local strawberries within reach across Texas is getting closer to reality, though growers and researchers alike say producing the popular fresh fruit is a new field altogether.
“Our goal was to add 5 percent to the acreage and we’ve done that,” says Dr. Russ Wallace, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service horticulturist in Lubbock. “There are a lot of interested people. We have revitalized the Texas strawberry industry and gotten people thinking.
“But there’s a big learning curve. I’m in my sixth season and have increased yields each year based on what I learned from each previous crop.”
Wallace is leading a two-year research effort as part of the National Strawberry Sustainability Initiative, which focused on production techniques the first year and is zoning in on marketing until it ends in June of this year. The project was funded by the Walmart Foundation and administered by the University of Arkansas.
On paper, the effort sounds small. With just 125 acres or so of commercial strawberries in Texas when the project began in 2013, Wallace says, the effort may have led to another six or seven acres and 15-20 new growers.
But one strawberry plant, given the appropriate production care, can yield more than a pound of berries a season, he says. At a recommended price of $5 a pound, the value can quickly add up, even when a grower starts “small, with 1,000 plants,” Wallace notes.
Still, Wallace and the 50 colleagues and growers who are a part of the project will be the first to admit, producing strawberries from the Texas Panhandle to the Rio Grande Valley has its challenges.
“One of the first things we learned is that strawberries don’t like heat,” Wallace says. “So, we learned to plant them in the fall and overwinter them.”
That means somewhere in Texas, strawberries are being harvested from November until June, he says, thanks to plastic-covered high tunnel structures in the more northern climes.
“Strawberry production in Texas is profitable but tricky,” says Dr. Joe Masabni, AgriLife Extension horticulturist in College Station, who has assisted producers in the project around Central Texas. “In Texas, the weather fluctuates very much. We may have two or three days of 70 degree weather in January or February and then in 24 hours it drops to 30 and the fruits get frozen. Or there’s too much moisture, which can lead to disease. These are the challenges that we are learning and teaching our producers.”
Masabni notes that there isn’t “one cookbook recipe applicable everywhere in Texas.”
“We have five climatic regions and every region has its own tips and tricks for producing a good crop,” he says.
Grower Larry Jollisant of Plantersville knows the challenges all too well. With acres of gorgeous green leafy plants loaded with ripening fruit in late February, a freeze hit, taking a toll on his crop.
Days later when the temperatures were heading to the low 70s, Jollisant gathered area workers to inch down each row, removing brown, dying leaves and spoiled fruit. From his truck cab, he used an electronic tablet to get the latest weather reports – another freeze was predicted that night – and to find online information on disease symptoms. Special frost blankets were already stretched out in the field, ready to be thrown over the plants to protect from the expected freeze.
“It’s a challenge,” says Jollisant, who has grown strawberries for three years. “There’s always something. But I appreciate having the specialists at Texas A&M AgriLife who are able to consult with me about what to do. It all takes money though, so I have to decide.”
Jollisant and his family were weighing the costs of protecting the crop against the labor involved, and factoring in a strawberry festival and a couple of field days planned at their organic, pick-your-own farm this spring.
In the Rio Grande Valley, the challenges are different but still there are challenges, according to Dr. Juan Anciso, AgriLife Extension horticulturist in Weslaco.
“Every year is different, but that’s what you call farming,” Anciso says. “This year we have never dropped below 32 in the Valley, but our weather has been cool and overcast and cloudy since November. So there has been very little sunlight, and our plants are not as vigorous.”
For people like Jollisant who don’t shy away from a challenge and want to give strawberries a try in Texas, the production lessons learned by the project participants have been described in a handbook, “Production Guide for Texas-Grown Strawberries,” available on the online Texas A&M AgriLife Bookstore, www.agrilifebookstore.org/.
“It had been about 40 years since a book had been written about growing strawberries in Texas,” Wallace says. “We have some new techniques since then, like covering beds with plastic and ways to prevent varmints from devouring the crop.”
Along with producing a crop, the team has also realized that marketing the yield takes a lot of information and skill as well.
“Texas strawberries are potentially a very profitable crop,” Wallace says. “And part of the success comes from the confidence of the growers to sell at a good price. In this final year of the project, we are encouraging them to do better marketing.”
He says growers have sold directly to restaurants for $5 a pound, at a farmers market for $4 a pound, and early in the season – before a lot are on the market – for $6 a pound.
“We would not encourage a farmer to sell any lower than $4 a pound,” he says, adding that a producer’s breakeven yield is about 1.25 pounds per plant.
Nationally, strawberries are a small but high-dollar crop. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 59,895 harvested acres were valued at almost $2.9 billion in 2014.
Anciso says growers plant 12,000-24,000 plants per acre, at a wholesale cost of 40 cents per plant, meaning it may cost $10,000 per acre just to plant, and producers are “doing well to get 1 pound per plant.”
“I think getting fresh strawberries for $5 a pound for a local, quality product is good,” Anciso says.
“Strawberries are a great crop for Texas, because they can be available first among other fruit crops for people to pick and enjoy as fresh, healthy fruits,” Masabni says.
“We want to grow strawberries in the Valley,” Anciso adds. “They haven’t been grown here on a large scale, but if we could at least supply the local demand, the restaurants and the farmers market, that would be great. Maybe 100 acres could be an awesome goal.”
“We plan to continue for the duration of the project with the marketing, sales and production aspects,” Wallace says. “We need to improve techniques with the growers and continue to find more and better varieties.”