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  • Norfolk Farms

High-Tunnel Strawberries Table-Top Production

Strawberries are the most important of all the small fruit, and continue to be an all-time favourite. The ‘strawberry social’, at a time, was an event looked forward to each and every year, and enjoyed by young and old


After all, strawberries were generally a short-season crop, but the first fruit of the season, and therefore -anticipated, and savoured, accordingly. Many people have fond memories of picking the ripest and most delectable berries from a local berry patch, and strawberry-stained fingers, were a ‘right-of-passage’.


Most modern-day strawberries have their parentage with the Chilian strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis), of Chili, South America, origin. In the 1700’s, a spy from France, while in Chili, recognized that this species had a larger berry than the other natives. However, it did lack cold hardiness; but when crossed with the North American strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) voila! ...the modern-day strawberry (Fragaria ananassa) was born. Strawberries can be found world-wide in its natural habitats, from the far north to the extreme south. Even here in the Norfolk and surrounding region, the wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) can be found in abundance.


Botanically speaking, the strawberry is the swollen and fleshy receptacle of the flower structure, and uniformly surrounded by numerous seeds (about 200) -called achenes (the true fruit), around the exterior of the ‘fruit’. The strawberry is the only fruit that ‘wears’ its seeds on the outside. When the fruit is properly pollinated, the achenes give off a growth regulating hormone allowing for uniform shape and size to the fruit. If not pollinated properly, some of the achenes will not develop, and the fruit become misshapen, known as cat-facing.


These days, one does not have to travel very far down a concession road before high-tunnel structures begin to appear. While most anything can be grown in them, there has been a great deal of interest in the production of strawberries and raspberries. However, given the cost, risk, and management of high-tunnel structures, the crops selected must be ‘matched’ as a ‘paying proposition’, accordingly.


Compared to field-production, high-tunnels as a protected growing system extends the growing season, and reduces the risk of unpredictable and deteriorating weather. And compared to traditional glass-covered greenhouses, high-tunnels are low-cost, plastic-covered structures that provide an intermediate level of environmental protection and control. However, ‘cost’ is a relative factor, as high-tunnel infrastructure does require considerable up-front investment, and only a few crops can justify the initial expense; such crops as strawberries and raspberries, for example, can often justify the cause.


Growing strawberries in-ground inside a high-tunnel can extend the early and late-season harvest, increase yield, and reduce risks compared to open-field production. However, in-ground production is limited by poor soil quality and the potential build-up of soil-borne diseases, and soil salts. That said, there is greater built-in ‘margin of error’ given the buffering capacity -and ‘forgiveness’, of most soils, when compared to soilless mixes as used in high-tunnel table-top production of strawberries.


Substrate production (use of soilless mixes) overcomes these soil challenges, and when crops are grown up off the ground on elevated systems -known as table-top production, improves harvesting efficiency, increases marketable yields, cleaner fruit, and reduces the physical strain on farm workers. This system is dubbed ‘table-top’ production, as the raised growing structures, are of table-top height.


In order to have season-long production of strawberries, day-neutral varieties are used -meaning, these varieties are not dependent upon day length to initiate flower production and fruit set, but rather, will bloom the entire season, no matter what the length of day. The varieties (cultivars) most commonly used include ‘Albion’, ‘San Andreas’, and ‘Monterey’, to name a few.


High-tunnel production requires a high-level of management -in fact, micromanagement would better describe it; watering (drip irrigation), fertilizing (fertigation: in-line soluble products), disease and pest control, close attention to ventilation -and, therefore, not for the ‘novice’ grower. The margin-of-error can be quite low, as this system is very precise and does not have much built-in room for mistakes, or ‘buffering capacity’, and therefore, the risk, can be quite high, if any one thing goes wrong.


In high-tunnel production, planting of strawberries into soilless mixes begins about mid-April for June production, and harvest continues until about freeze-up in the fall ...picking about every 3 days. There are many variations to the theme of table-top production; troughs, plant bags, pots, or slabs, can all be used depending upon cost, expertise, and preference. Optimal plant density, and corresponding yields, are aimed at helping to off-set infrastructure and operating costs. Strawberry transplants are usually from field-grown rooted-runners of the previous year, and once harvested, placed in cold storage throughout the winter, until required.


Most people in the agricultural industry, will only be all too aware, of the sudden ‘rush’ into cannabis production ...with the majority of businesses failing due to lack of grower expertise, and over-supply in an already-saturated market. For some, high-tunnel production of strawberries might possibly be at risk to failure, for the same reasons, as more-and-more ‘entrepreneurs’ move into the market -to the point of, saturating another market.


However, and to conclude ...should this help, apparently, not enough people seem to realize, that next to chocolate, strawberry is the world’s 2nd most famous aphrodisiac! And, chocolate-covered strawberries were originally paired to take advantage of this ‘fun fact’. So, just maybe, the strawberry market has yet to reach its saturation point, after all?

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