Because they are so perishable, strawberries are well suited to roadside stand and pick-your-own operations, where time from harvest to sale can be kept to a minimum. Roadside stands (either your own or another grower's) and pick-your-own operations provide opportunities to receive relatively high prices for your strawberries, but you may have some additional expenses for advertising, building and maintaining a facility, and providing service to your customers. With pick-your-own operations, you save on harvest costs, but you must also be willing to accept some waste.
Grower-harvested berries are most commonly sold in open quart and pint containers, such as pulp, wooden, or plastic baskets (rather than plastic clamshells). When berries are sold through local retailers, such as a grocery store, it may be wise to discuss preferred containers prior to harvest. Containers like clamshells protect berries from handling by others and may provide greater food safety, but they may also give consumers the initial impression that berries are not locally produced. Prominent signage indicating the origin of the produce may help to remedy this situation.
When selling through local retailers, you must take the time to contact produce managers and must provide good quality strawberries when stores require them. Recently, widespread interest in buying local has resulted in increased opportunities to work with local retailers.
Other marketing alternatives available to the strawberry grower include other types of wholesale markets such as auctions, cooperatives, and processing firms. In wholesale marketing, either you or a shipper can take your crop to the market. Shippers generally sell and transport strawberries for a predetermined price. Wholesale marketing is subject to the greatest price fluctuations. Marketing cooperatives generally use a daily pooled cost and price, which spreads price fluctuations over all participating producers.
Strawberries can be grown on a variety of soils. Choose a well-drained site that receives plenty of sun and is close to an irrigation source. The slope of the site should be no greater than 12 percent. The term "well drained" refers to drainage through the soil profile. A sloping site is not necessarily well drained.
Soil should have a pH of 6.0 to 6.5 and should be tested the fall before planting is intended. Do not use a site in undisturbed sod because it can harbor root-feeding grubs that can damage the strawberry roots. Also, strawberry plantings should not follow verticillium -susceptible crops such as peppers, eggplant, potatoes, or tomatoes. Soil that has been used to grow these crops should be either planted with a non- verticillium -susceptible cover crop for 5 to 8 years or fumigated before planting. Cover cropping for at least a year with a crop such as rye or sudangrass is highly recommended to help control weeds before strawberry beds are planted. In addition, cover crops can be plowed under to add organic matter to heavy soils. Fertilizer requirements vary with soil type, location, and production system, and thus are not discussed in this brief publication.
Matted-Row Production for June-bearing Varieties
Matted-row production relies on the establishment of a filled-in row of strawberry plants through runner and daughter plant proliferation. The original mother plants are planted on a relatively wide spacing. This is a relatively low-cost system for producing strawberries. Matted-row production was the standard strawberry production system in the region for many years, and it is still the system used for most of the strawberry acreage. It is frequently used for pick-your-own operations.
In matted-row production, dormant crown strawberry plants usually are planted 18 to 24 inches apart in rows 36 to 48 inches apart. Spacing decisions depend on the size of your equipment. Growers should purchase cultivars resistant to red stele and verticillum wilt from a reputable nursery.
These plants should be set in April as soon as the soil can be worked. Flower blossoms should be removed during the first season. This practice sacrifices the first year's crop, but it enables growers to establish a bed of vigorous plants. It is especially important to closely monitor and control pests in the first year. During mid- to late summer, the original plants will begin to produce runners and daughter plants that should be moved into the rows. After daughter plants fill in a 12- to 18-inch-wide bed, runners and daughter plants that begin to fill the aisles may be removed during cultivation operations.
Four inches of clean straw mulch (about 2 tons of straw per acre) should be applied when the plants are dormant, usually between late November and late December. This practice protects the strawberry plants from sudden temperature fluctuations and helps prevent frost heaving, which can break roots and expose crowns to cold temperatures. The straw should be removed during the following March when the soil temperature reaches 40 degrees at a 4-inch depth. Plants flower in April to May depending on location. Fruit matures 26 to 30 days after flowering.
After fruiting is complete, the beds are renovated (mowed, narrowed, fertilized, and treated with herbicides in conventional production) and the fruiting cycle begins again. Fruit size decreases with the age of the bed, and overall yield declines after about 2 to 3 years. In the mid-Atlantic states, a well-maintained matted-row strawberry planting of June bearers should produce an average of 10,000 pounds per acre, though yields range widely from half to twice this much.