Strawberries on the rise

Larry Odom is owner of Holland Bottom Farm, one of Arkansas’ larger commercial strawberry operations. Located in Cabot, Ark., Holland Bottom Farm primarily retails its strawberries at an on-farm market and two locations in adjacent towns. A small percentage is sold wholesale to a Little Rock, Ark., market.

Odom, who grew up with cotton farming, switched from row cropping cotton, rice and soybeans in 1983 in response to increasing equipment costs.

Odom’s strawberry operation is part of a growing industry in Arkansas. The industry was initially launched in the late 1880s, and grew thanks to advances in transportation technology. The berries could be shipped by rail to arrive fresh in several population centers. The industry was limited by rail connections and the type of terrain and soil required for strawberry production.

Freshly picked strawberries are ready for sale.

Further innovations in transportation, primarily shipping in refrigerated trucks, led to a decline in the Arkansas strawberry industry.

The three to four-month growing season of Arkansas contrasted with Florida’s six-month and California’s year-round growing season. Coupled with refrigerated shipping, those states were in a much more advantageous production position. California continues to lead the nation in strawberry production. However, with increased interest across the nation in locally grown, fresh produce, the Arkansas strawberry industry is quietly growing. However, that resurgence is dependent on location, according to Jeff Welch at the University of Arkansas Extension.

Welch, Lonoke County Extension agent, said, “Growers have to be near population centers to profitably produce strawberries. Our varieties are some of the best-tasting strawberries available, with high sugar content, but they don’t ship well. We have several population centers, and our strawberry production is mostly around those areas.” Cabot is the county seat of Lonoke County and lies within the Little Rock-North Little Rock-Conway metropolitan area, providing a ready market for the luscious strawberries.

The switch to strawberries

After earning a degree at the University of Central Arkansas and teaching high school mathematics for a number of years, Odom, a third-generation farmer, returned to farming. With unplanned but necessary major equipment replacement looming in 1983, he decided to switch from row cropping.

“We started with a 10-acre you-pick operation,” said Odom. With the proximity to the metro Little Rock area, and the nationwide interest in harvesting fresh fruit, the you-pick strawberry operation was very popular. “We were in a fast-growing community, and people liked our strawberries,” he said.

Odom and his wife, Sandy, grow about 15 acres of strawberries in the labor-intensive, commercial production operation. Their son Tim, 42, works in all aspects of Holland Bottom Farm operation. “The plan is that he will take over the operation in time,” Odom said.

The crew begins picking strawberries.

In 1996, Odom made another major switch, this time precipitated to a large degree by increasing issues with disease. “We renovated our strawberries every year, but we had leather rot, fruit anthracnose and gray mold,” Odom explained. They switched to the increasingly successful practice of growing on black plastic mulch.

Welch noted, “Almost all commercial growing is now on plasticulture, with matted rows a thing of the past.”

Modern agricultural production

Agricultural innovation that includes plasticulture, drip irrigation and improved fertilizer and pesticides, along with improvements in varieties, has led to increased interest in commercial strawberry production.

“We use a Tenco bed shaper and a Tenco mulch layer to lay the plastic mulch and drip tape,” Odom said. Dormant plants are purchased from Lassen Canyon Nursery, Redding, Calif. “We use Chandler, the only variety I would have in my fields,” Odom said.

Strawberries ripening in March 2012, about three weeks earlier than normal.

“Plants are sent to us dormant with about 300 hours of chilling time,” he said. “They arrive the week of October 4, and we have 21 or 22 workers to plant them which takes about four days.” Holes are marked in the mulch at the time of installation, and holes are dug and strawberries planted, all with hand labor. A preplant fertilizer product, 19-19-19, purchased from Oakley Fertilizer, Beebe, Ark., is applied along with irrigation water through the irrigation tape. Irrigation water is drawn from a 60-acre water reservoir where runoff water is retained. “The reservoir was set up to irrigate 500 acres of rice. We pump from the lake, and when the creek flows, we can pump from that,” Odom explained. Water is carried to the fields in 12-inch diameter underground PVC pipes.

Odom said, “I use a very simple operation that works for me in my situation. When the plants are in the ground, they have to grow new hair roots from about October 10 to early December, getting flower buds for the next spring. Plants begin flowering about February 25 and are covered starting around February 20 before flowering if temperatures fall below freezing. They remain covered as long as the temperatures are below freezing because there’s too much labor involved in covering and uncovering the plants. “

Stable labor

Labor continues to be a major issue in fruit and vegetable harvesting. Odom has maintained a stable labor force from Mexico since the early days of his operation. “We use H-2A workers. We are required to provide housing,” he said. The Adverse Effect Wage Rate is set annually for each state by the U.S. Department of Labor, and the 2012 rate for Arkansas is $9.50 per hour.

While Odom’s labor crew has been stable and includes experienced, dependable workers, it is necessary to keep the labor at his site for several months. The workers depend on their annual income.

Other crops grown at Holland Bottom Farm provide work for the crew.

“We grow about 20 acres of vegetables that include okra, peppers, purple hull peas, tomatoes, cucumbers and sweet corn, and we also have peaches and watermelons,” Odom noted, “but our strawberries are our bread and butter.”

Welch noted that Odom’s operation is representative of most successful fruit and vegetable operations that employ migrant labor crews. “They grow vegetables primarily as a way to profitably maintain their labor force for the strawberry harvest,” he said.

Weather challenges

Weather affects all growing operations, and the mild winter of 2010-11 has produced special challenges at Holland Bottom Farm. “We’ve never picked a strawberry in March,” Odom said. This year, we opened our market on March 20.” With the crew not scheduled for arrival until April, picking the ripe strawberries was a major issue. “We had four of our workers up from Mexico for hothouse duties,” Odom said. They worked from sunup until dark, he noted. The full crew arrived the first week of April. Odom said, “They got off the bus and went straight to the strawberry field.”

Both strawberry and vegetable productions are labor-intensive crops and require not only labor crews, but also intensive efforts by owners. Odom noted, “We put in about 100 hours a week for nine months, and get some rest between December and late February.”

Odom is a member of the North American Strawberry Association, National Peach Council and Farm Bureau.

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and frequent contributor. She resides in Mount Zion, Ill.