Garden Calendar: Strawberry growers use innovative methods for earlier crop
At Wohletz Farm Fresh, 1831 North 1100 Road in rural Lawrence, strawberries are about to hit the big time.
Cool, cloudy days have slowed the approach of the season a bit, but Jerry and Jane Wohletz, who own and operate the farm, expect berry-picking to be in full swing around May 20.
Pick-your-own strawberries are a great opportunity to teach kids about where food comes from as well as getting delicious, nutritious fruit. Fresh, plant-ripened berries have a full, developed flavor as opposed to the artificially-ripened berries that are available year-round. You can also get a large quantity to make jam or preserves, or freeze or dehydrate the berries for later use.
Jerry and Jane, who have been growing fruits and vegetables for the Farmers’ Market since 2003, said they decided to add strawberries to their lineup because of Jane’s fond memories of strawberry picking.
“We would go out and pick and bring the berries back to make jam and strawberry shortcake,” she says. “We wanted to offer that experience.”
Besides the quality difference with nonlocal berries, the Wohletz’s decided to try something different from other strawberry producers in the area by growing with a system called plasticulture instead of traditional matted row production. Plasticulture just means growing the strawberry plants in a row that is covered with a sheet of black plastic. Although it sounds simple, plasticulture has really only been utilized in the last 20 years, and the Wohletz’s were the first to do it in this region.
Jerry says they chose plasticulture because it meant using less pesticides and gives the farmer better control over moisture, which is directly related to the quality of the berry. In traditional strawberry production, pesticides are primarily used to control soil-borne fungal diseases and weeds that can out-compete the strawberry plants.
Plasticulture strawberries are also produced in raised beds, making them easier to pick and makes them a little more family-friendly because kids are contained in the aisles.
The downside of plasticulture is higher labor intensity and input costs than a traditional system.
Jerry says that once the picking season is over, they will strip all the plants to prevent the possibility of the plant material harboring disease.
“We plant a cover crop of sudangrass for the summer, then mow it and plow it back into the soil to provide nutrients,” he explains. “Once the cover crop is in, I hire a guy to build the raised beds and lay the plastic and irrigation lines with a special machine.”
The 25,000 plants that went in last September took a nine-member crew, including Jerry and Jane, about 10 hours to install. Then, the plants just need water through the fall, to the tune of about 22,000 gallons per week. Because of the drought last year, the Wohletz’s were forced to purchase and haul water, although they had been able to pump water from their pond in previous years.
Another concern for growing strawberries in Kansas is frost protection. In a traditional system, plants are mulched with straw for winter protection. The other option is row covers — thin material used in horticultural production for both temperature and pest protection. Jerry and Jane cover their strawberry field in late fall, using seven 40-by-300-foot row covers. The row covers typically stay on until March, but had to go back on for a few weeks this year because of freezing temperatures in mid-April.
In the winter of 2011-2012, the Wohletz’s worked with K-State Research and Extension and the North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education to do on-farm research trials of different weights of row cover cloth. Since the Wohletz’s were the first to try plasticulture in the region, researchers and specialists were previously unsure how heavier or lighter weights of row cover would affect berry production. For that winter at least, a one-ounce row cover produced the best results.
The Wohletz’s will be updating their website, wohletzfarmfresh.com, and Facebook page regularly with strawberry-picking information, or you can get information by calling 785-331-3468.