Region’s strawberry growers concerned but hopeful
CHESAPEAKE, Va. — Weather the last two years hasn’t been kind to the region’s strawberry growers.
Last year, especially, was the worst some growers had ever seen.
But it’s a new year and a new chance to grow a better crop and while challenges from last year’s weather have bled into this year, growers who attended the recent Mid-Atlantic Strawberry Programs were optimistic for a better year pointing to sustained demand for locally grown products.
“I’m a farmer, I’m always optimistic this time of year,” said Bill Stacy, a Marietta, Ohio grower who attended the two-day meeting.
Russ Shlagel, a Waldorf, Md., grower, said even after heavy losses to last year’s crop, he’s maintained the same strawberry acreage to be able to serve their customer base as long as the weather cooperates.
“People know us for strawberries,” he said. “There’s a strong demand for local produce, all you need to do is grow a premium crop and the buyers are there.”
Shlagel said his approach heading into this year hasn’t changed either. “It’s a long term investment,” he said. “You manage the problems as best as you can to try to make a crop.”
In Smithfield, Va., Jake Browder has steadily increased his planting for Browder’s Fresh Pickins from a quarter acre a few years ago to 8/10 of an acre this year. As a pick your own farm operating on the honor system, he said he’s probably different than a lot of growers, raising mostly Sweet Charlie variety berries, which have good disease resistance and can bring an earlier harvest, but aren’t typically the best yielding. Still, with more people moving to the area, he said he’s looking forward to this year and the future.
“I’m extremely positive,” Browder said. “The public is interested in pick your own and I can grow as the town grows.”
Not all growers were as bullish. Chesapeake, Va., grower Jonathan Lindsay said he cut his planting down from six acres to about 1.5 acres at his Poor John’s Farm. The wet weather played a big role but he said construction of a toll bridge changed a lot of his customers’ travel route.
“If it doesn’t get better this year, I’m going to have to do something else,” he said. “Strawberries just worked because it opened up the season for me.”
The Feb. 26 field walks at Greenbrier Farms and Hickory Ridge Farm and the following day’s “Strawberry School,” saw above average attendance with 90 participants, according to Virginia Beach Extension agent Roy Flanagan, one of the program’s organizers. The program started 19 years ago as a way to get growers in one place to better share information on research and production. He added the formation of the Virginia Strawberry Association in 2013 gave the program a boost in funding and promotion.
“The program as a whole has grown, and our outreach has gone farther out,” Flanagan said.
Throughout the program, plant pathologists and small fruit specialists said excessive moisture from hurricanes and other storms last year aided an early flush of anthracnose in strawberry plants, both as plants were being grown out in nurseries and after they reached farms for planting.
Dr. Barclay Poling, professor emeritus at North Carolina State University, said growers are facing as much disease pressure as any other time in his career.
“We have to be really on top of our game this year for disease management,” he said. “We’re going into this year with a lot of questions.”
Early disease issues, along with fields too wet for shaping beds and laying plastic, delayed planting on many farms, said Dr. Alan Straw, horticultural consultant in Southwest Virginia.
Dr. Chuck Johnson, Virginia Tech Extension plant pathologist, urged growers who suspect the disease is in their field to have a sample lab tested to determine the particular species which will help in the most effective treatment.
“We always need to watch out for that and not jump the gun on what we have,” he said. “Symptoms are just an indicator. Until we have actual test that tells us specifically what it is, it’s just an educated guess.”
Johnson also told growers to guard against fungicide resistance by communicating with their plant source to know what treatments have already been applied to make better decisions on in-season applications.
“You just need to know the background on your plants,” he said.
David Dycus an agronomist for North Carolina-based FCI, Inc., said growers from across the state have been calling to say their plants are “waking up” and if it’s time to fertilize.
“Once they wake up, my philosophy is when that happens you better feed it, because if you don’t, you’ll stress them,” Dycus said. “Your goal is to keep the crop as happy and healthy as possible.”
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