Nearly all of the strawberries in the United States are grown in Florida or California, but faced with growing competition in the industry from Mexico, a team of UF researchers is looking for ways to diversify the industry.
Led by horticultural sciences professor Carlene Chase, the team hopes to develop new organic and sustainable methods of growing strawberries in the southeastern United States. Hers is one of two UF teams awarded grants by the National Strawberry Sustainability Initiative, a program funded by the Walmart Foundation and administered by the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture's Center for Agricultural and Rural Sustainability.
Through consumer surveys, as well as collaboration with industry leaders and sustainable growers, Chase's team wants to make organic strawberries a viable crop for farms of all sizes. Of more than 7,000 acres producing strawberries in Florida, Chase said about 1.5 percent are organic.
"We think that growers are more likely to expand the acreage in that area if there is more research to facilitate that," Chase said. "The angle we've decided to take is pretty size-neutral, and the price premium we expect consumers to pay should make up for the potentially lower yields of organic systems." Chase's team also points out that much of what they learn in this research will be just as useful to conventional growers as it is to organic growers. Weed management, for example, is a challenge for all producers, and the strategies Chase proposes could be used by both conventional and organic producers.
Chase points out that growers must not only make good decisions about the individual aspects of producing a crop, but also consider how changing one aspect, like selecting a strawberry cultivar, can affect other aspects, such as pest management. This research uses a systems approach rather than focusing on any single part of the production process. For example, horticulturist Xin Zhao, entomologist Oscar Liburd, and Chase, a weed ecologist, will simultaneously test how different strawberry cultivars and weed management strategies affect the kinds and numbers of pests that a farmer might need to manage.
This holistic approach will focus on both open-field and high-tunnel organic strawberry production in Florida and North Carolina and will emphasize cultural and biological crop management and pest management techniques. Examples of such techniques are the use of cover crops that suppress weeds and sting nematodes while serving as green manure when plowed under, selection for strawberry cultivars best adapted to organic production, and biological control of key pests of strawberry.
Therefore, in addition to bringing more diversity to the market, the researchers hope to reduce chemical use on farms. While Chase said the team will initially try to grow the strawberry cultivars without chemicals, if they find a need for them, the team will consider using nonsynthetic and natural products approved for use in organic production.
Zhifeng Gao, an assistant professor in UF's Food and Resource Economics Department, and Mickie Swisher of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, will work to determine consumer preferences for strawberries. They'll study factors such as flavor, taste, quality and the price consumers will pay for organic produce.
Swisher says this project is exciting because it brings together research about production practices and what consumers want. She said it is especially exciting to be working with an industry leader like Walmart because of the project's potential to provide healthy, domestically produced strawberries to consumers. Equally important, she said, is the involvement of strawberry producers and industry representatives in the research.
"We hope to get very, very deep and substantive feedback from strawberry producers to help us find economically viable solutions for growers," Swisher said.