Friday, June 1, 2012

Putting the "straw" back in strawberry farming

For a video tour of the Dirty Girl Produce patch click below.

Dirty Girl Produce Strawberry Patch from miranda schirmer on Vimeo.

Santa Cruz County is blanketed in strawberry fields. While this may sound beautiful the reality of large scale conventional strawberry production is pretty grim. Conventional growers rely on methyl bromide as a soil sterilizing fumigant, toxic sprays and water soluble fertilizers that leach in to streams.

Another challenge in growing strawberries is the dependence on plastic mulch. Since I was already uncomfortable with the amount of plastic drip tape I was hauling off to the landfill every year, the idea of using more plastic on my farm was concerning.

The first year I planted just a few thousand plants and instead of using plastic mulch I used straw mulch which is what farmers used in the past and how “straw”-berries get their name. Strawberries without mulch get overtaken by weeds and with the long growing season that means a lot of hand weeding. Also strawberries need constant soil moisture and mulch holds the water in the soil by preventing evaporation from the sun. I quickly learned that there is a reason farmers don't use straw mulch anymore. We still had to hand weed many more times than we would if we were using plastic. Also, the straw didn't hold in the water meaning we needed to irrigate more often.

The biggest problem was the slugs. They loved living under the straw during the day and munching berries at night. I have seen some slugs since then in my strawberries but nothing even close to that first year. I'm not saying that using straw mulch can't be done, but when you have bills to pay... I have also tried “biodegradable” plastic mulch and it got shredded to pieces within a month. So now I use plastic mulch. I am always on the lookout for a new mulch option but until than I will use what options are available. Let me know if you've got an idea!

Since we grow on 34 acres and we only plant 1 acre of strawberries a year I have not had to plant strawberries on the same spot yet. Crop rotation is, in my opinion, the key to breaking the conventional farmers' dependence on soil fumigants. I find that strawberries grow themselves if you have been building your soil with cover crops, compost, and organic fertilizers. We plant a summer cover of bell beans, peas, and rye before spreading compost and preparing the strawberry beds. We top dress with an organic pelletized fertilizer made from bone and blood meal before covering with plastic mulch. We also inject a water soluble fertilizer made from kelp every 2 weeks during harvest. This is enough to keep the plants healthy and relatively disease and pest free.

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