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On this episode Lowell and I talk through an overview of the “life cycle” of the strawberry cycle. We talk about field preparation, planting, the winter and spring months leading up to opening for pick your own. And then it all starts over again!
Full Episode Transcript
Intro: 00:06 – ::Music::
Eldon: 00:06 – Hello everyone. Welcome back to Conversations with Yoders’ Farm. This is episode number two, and I’m Eldon.
Lowell: 00:14 – And I’m Lowell.
Eldon: 00:15 – And, today we are going to talk a little bit more in depth about the strawberry process. Is that right Lowell?
Lowell: 00:22 – That’s what I understood. Yes.
Eldon: 00:26 – All right. So I guess I’ll just turn it over to you and let you just kind of jump into it and we’ll see where it goes.
Lowell: 00:31 – Yeah. So we hope to give you a bit more of an in depth overview than what maybe you have caught from our Facebook posts. And, uh, you know, we try to educate people through the year about what’s going on. But, uh, we thought maybe we would record a podcast around, just kind of the timeline, and life cycle, whatever. Of strawberry production. So, uh, we use the plasticulture strawberry production system, which is just a fancy word to mean that we grow them on plastic hills, basically it was, developed out in California and adapted here to the US… Traditionally…
Eldon: 01:21 – California is actually in the US.
Lowell: 01:23 – What did I say?
Eldon: 01:23 – You said it was developed in California… Anyhow…. It was adapted for the East Coast, I guess. Is that what you meant to say?
Lowell: 01:33 – Yeah, it was brought to the east coast and made popular here and it has kind of worked its way from the southern part of the east coast and on up the coast. I think some people are actually doing it up in the northern states now. So, traditionally strawberries were grown just in a field setting and then on strawed rows…
Eldon: 01:57 – Matted row, is that what thats called?
Lowell: 01:57 – Yeah. But you know, it has something to do with their name, you know, straw berry, strawberries and so forth. So that was how it was typically done around here. So this plasticulture system is slightly different, though there are similarities. So we plant our berries. Well first we work the ground. You’ve got to, when you’re dealing with making these nice plastic covered hills, you have to have a nice soil, plenty of loose dirt and free of as many rocks and clods as you can possibly have, which, you know, we do the best we can. Um, the soil around here isn’t, you know, perfect by any stretch. So, we work the land and typically we make the beds in August. We like to get them in in a timely way. And then we’re looking for a planting date. Some varieties you plant early in the month of September, closer to the front end, and then another variety likes to be planted a little bit later in September, mid to late September. And, uh, so that’s what we do. These, strawberries we get from nurseries. The interesting thing about them is they, the tips which become the actual strawberry plant are harvested off of mother plants up in Canada. These are harvested, kept in cold storage, shipped to a nursery and then they’re put into plastic trays. They’re put under an intense, mist cycle for several weeks. They grow little roots… anyway. They become strawberry plants.
Eldon: 03:52 – Plugs we call them till we get them and are ready to plant them.
Lowell: 03:56 – That’s right. So, we buy many of them and then we also raise some ourselves. So we get them and do the same little misting process here. So we’re planting in the month of September, after planting we’re trying to make sure the beds are really wet to get good plant establishment. Sometimes we’re running overhead irrigation over top as well as our normal drip irrigation. It just depends on the conditions. But uh, we have done that before. You’re looking to get decent plant growth. It’s nice to have sort of a mild fall, um, mild on into October and into November. Uh, you’re wanting, you’re wanting it to be mild, but not crazy warm, is ideal. And then at some point, you actually want it to get cold, you reach a point where your plant. Is at a good size to go into the winter? And then it’s nice for it to gradually cool down and, kind of go into a “dormant” state. Now obviously you’re dealing with mother nature, things like that don’t always work, but those would be ideal conditions.
Eldon: 05:16 – Yeah. So if it stays too warm for too long, you can actually get some blooming in the fall and…
Lowell: 05:25 – Yeah and you end up with plants that are just really too large. That’s one reason we don’t plant any earlier in September. Now further north, you’re dealing with a cooler weather. You would actually plant earlier than we do. And then further south, they actually plant quite a bit later than we do.
Eldon: 05:42 – So the main goal of say, October and November is to mostly get a good root system established and a little bit of growth.
Lowell: 05:52 – Yeah, I’ve heard kind of like a cantaloupe size plant is what you’re shooting for.
Eldon: 05:58 – All right… and then we head into winter, and they go kind of dormant?
Lowell: 06:01 – Yeah, they slow down, stop growing, uh, during the coldest part of the winter. Um, we will often use row covers as a way, like if we’ve had a cool fall, like last year we hit a cool stretch. Some of our plants are on the smaller side, so we row covered them earlier than normal. Using a floating row cover. That’s just a thin lightweight fabric that light can get through. It’s about 60% light transmittance.
Eldon: 06:34 – I think that’s the right word. Translucence…
Lowell: 06:36 – Translucence yeah.
Eldon: 06:37 – I don’t know.
Lowell: 06:38 – It allows light to transmit through it.
Eldon: 06:44 – Light gets through it one way or the other.
Lowell: 06:44 – …60, 70%. And so we’ll use that. If we need more growth, we’ll throw one on earlier. If we don’t need the extra growth, we probably won’t cover until, gets pretty cold. Like you’re talking mid, upper, mid teens, low teens.
Eldon: 07:03 – So do we leave the row covers on all winter or they come off until..?
Lowell: 07:10 – Yeah, we’ll typically, if it’s, you know, in December and we cover, we’ll leave them on for a period of time unless it is abnormally warm or something we might pull them off for a while. You don’t want your plants to get too warm under them and then start growing again before they’re supposed to. So basically, we try to just kind of have them in a holding pattern, through January and maybe into February. You don’t want them to wake up too soon in the spring…
Eldon: 07:44 – …basically like children, you want them to get to sleep when you want them too and wake up when you want them to…
Lowell: 07:50 – And wake up happy.
Eldon: 07:52 – Yeah. And if they, if they wake up too early or don’t go dormant through the winter at the proper time, we can end up with some issues in spring then.
Lowell: 08:05 – Right. And see with the plastic you’re dealing with warmer soil, it tends to push these plants a little bit more than a plant that would be, just out in the field in the bare dirt. So matted row berries typically, they bloom several weeks later with a berry on plastic you’re dealing with earlier bloom, which means earlier berries, but it also means more of a potential to be impacted by frost, which is probably the next thing we should talk about.
Eldon: 08:36 – Yeah. So, once we get through winter, well I’m not sure, when does winter officially end? As we head into March, we start looking for blooms. Right?
Lowell: 08:46 – Yeah, we’ll typically start blooming sometime in March. And that’s again, very variable depending on the weather. It can vary by a couple of weeks each year. During this time it’s a good time to begin the weeding process. We go through, take off dead leaves, and kind of clean up the plant. So you’re left with a nice healthy plant that helps with disease pressure later on in the spring.
Eldon: 09:08 – And makes for a better picking experience for everybody.
Lowell: 09:12 – There you go. So, yeah, once you have blooms and you commit to, okay, this is, we’re going to try to save these things, turn these blooms into fruit. Then we use row covers, those same row covers we talked about earlier for frost protection. So, any night where you’re getting down into the upper thirties and you’re going to be pulling those row covers on. It’s fairly labor intensive, but you just get out there and do it. Some farms use overhead irrigation. That’s also an option. We’d don’t typically here because our irrigation supply and system is a little borderline to do that. So we find it simpler for us just to get out there and pull the covers on.
Eldon: 10:06 – That can introduce some issues as well for the plants potentially, right?
Lowell: 10:11 – As far as over head irrigation?
Eldon: 10:13 – Yeah.
Lowell: 10:14 – Well you’re throwing water onto your field, you know, drier is better…
Eldon: 10:20 – Yeah. For the same reason, we don’t want it to rain every day throughout March. Um, it can be an issue, I guess.
Lowell: 10:29 – Yeah, it’s a very common practice though many people do it.
Eldon: 10:32 – It works.
Lowell: 10:32 – They are quite successful at it. Sometimes people actually will overhead water over top of the row covers and you can take plants way down into the probably low teens. You can protect blooms.
Eldon: 10:47 – Wow… We kind of have a back up system where we might could do that, but we’ve never done that to this point.
Lowell: 10:54 – Yeah, our backup system is we have some lightweight covers, so we can get 8 or 10 degrees out of our normal cover of protection. So our backup system is to throw another cover on over top of it, double layer, and then you can get more like, I don’t know, 12, maybe 14 degrees of protection.
Eldon: 11:20 – Okay. Wow.
Lowell: 11:21 – Maybe not quite that. It depends on the conditions and the wind and so forth.
Eldon: 11:26 – So the backup to our backup is the water system that we sort of have but have never used, I guess. And hopefully will never have to.
Lowell: 11:36 – Any way, you’re on and off with the covers. You’re frost protecting and we’re recording this podcast on April the 24th, today, and our last frost protection event was a week and two days ago. We pulled…
Eldon: 11:57 – You remember better than I do. I think you pulled them, I didn’t.
Lowell: 11:59 – We pulled the covers on a Monday evening. And we had everything tucked in very, very well. The forecast was calling for 34 (degrees). That’s plenty cold enough for frost down at the plant level. And, so we covered and covered till very late at night and it turned out it actually didn’t get quite as cold as predicted, but we were still glad we had pulled the covers. So then we pulled them all off the next day…
Eldon: 12:32 – And then later week it wasn’t supposed to get terribly cold and it got chillier than we thought it would, so we watched the weather pretty carefully, but the weather is still an estimate, so it’s not a hundred percent.
Lowell: 12:45 – Yeah, that’s true. So as we record this podcast, we actually feel quite comfortable in the extended, forecast at least as comfortable as you can get with something as unpredictable as the weather. We’ve actually taken all our covers out of the field because we, we think we’re going to be able to open for picking in about a week to 10 days. So it’s not nice for customers wading around out in the field with the covers there and the rock bags that hold them down and so forth. So we have all the covers out and we’re working at getting the rock bags out. So pretty much we’ve said, okay, we’re done frost protecting for the year.
Eldon: 13:29 – Of course if something came up, we could pull them all back out..
Lowell: 13:32 – Right, it would just be a lot of work to do that. You would be duplicating your efforts basically. So during the spring, during this whole frost protecting, event, you’re also beginning irrigation. These plants, especially as they start stretching, getting bigger, they use a lot of water. So we’re running the pump. Most every day, sometimes several times a day. We’re also injecting a fertilizer right into the water and this puts it right down in the little drip tube, which is in that, that plastic covered hill that we talked about earlier. We’re doing during that, through this time, we’re also starting our sprays during this time. We use fungicides, research shows. If you protect those blooms, do a good job of doing that. You don’t have to do much in season spraying. So that’s what we try to do around here.
Eldon: 14:36 – Yeah, we generally subscribe to the, minimally sprayed methodology. So, we don’t spray it unless we absolutely have to, but the name of the game with that is protecting the blooms in the early stage.
Lowell: 14:53 – Yeah. You’re, you’re protecting against something called Botrytis gray mold and, it’s what turns a berry, what makes it mold. So yeah, you’re, you’re protecting those blooms from, from that.
Eldon: 15:09 – All right. So, that kind of gets us up to where we open, I guess. Generally in the timeline of the strawberry cycle.
Lowell: 15:18 – Yeah. So that’s kind of where we are right now, you know, we have little berries on the plants and we still have blooms too and everyone is asking me, including my family…
Eldon: 15:33 – Including me…
Lowell: 15:33 – …calls, and especially Eldon, when are we going to open? When are we going to open? People want to know, people want to know. Well it’s a bit of an inexact science. Typically it takes a month from, bloom to red strawberries I said typically because there’s a lot of variables… daytime temperatures or if you go through a cool spell for quite a while, it’ll stretch that out closer to 40 days instead of 30 days. So the fact of the matter is, I don’t know…
Eldon: 16:11 – For the record, I understand that before I ever ask you, can you for sure pinpoint a day when we can open, but yeah, basically, as soon as we can lock in a date, we can start telling people that (date). And it just makes life simpler for answering questions.
Lowell: 16:28 – I mean, believe me, we are all looking forward to being able to open up that’s why we work as hard as we do to provide nice fruit for people to pick. It’s just hard to pinpoint an actual day. And of course you’re also, when you have a pick your own patch, you have to have enough volume to, sustain, you know, your number of customers.
Eldon: 16:53 – Yeah, it’s not like you hit one day and suddenly there’s a ton of ripe berries.
Lowell: 16:59 – When you see the first berry, you can’t just say, okay, now we’re open. So we’ll typically pick some of the first ones, sell them at our store and when we feel like we have enough volume and then we, we may open, you know, part of a day and then have a day or two break.
Eldon: 17:17 – This year it’s kind of looking like we may end up opening towards the end of next week. So it may be a couple of days towards the end of the week. And then, they kind of regroup over Sunday, which is our day off. And then, we’ll probably roll into the next week.
Lowell: 17:35 – That’s what we’re hoping to do. But there again, you know, what’s the weather going to be like between now and then? It looks actually pretty decent. Nothing crazy.
Eldon: 17:44 – Yeah, there’s a couple chances of rain.
Lowell: 17:44 – Yeah, but temperatures, you know, our nighttime temperatures are actually fairly warm and our daytime temperatures are up into the 70s.
Eldon: 17:53 – Good, strawberry growing weather. All right. So then the season usually is what, four weeks? Six weeks, eight weeks?
Lowell: 18:05 – Yeah. So this year if we start, right at the very tail end of April or you just as well say May, we should run through the month of May. It always, you know, you open up and it’s a little slower picking right at the very beginning. Though, some of those first berries usually they are the biggest of the season. They’re nice and fun to pick. It’s a nice clean patch. It’s one of my favorite times. And then you hit peak production and then there’s always kind of a slide towards the end as your production drops off, your berry size drops a little bit, though we try to do a good job of keeping the water and fertilizer rolling to keep that berry size up. But then you’re also rewarded with sweeter fruit generally towards the end of the season. So that’s a factor as well.
Eldon: 18:58 – Yeah. So there’s not a hard set six week season or whatever. There again, we ease into it at the beginning of the season and then we kind of tail off towards the end picking gets scattered. And, generally though we’re looking at a six week season or so?
Lowell: 19:19 – We should go into, into June a little ways… like I say they are still blooming out there. If you remember that month rule from bloom to fruit, we should still have fruit in a month’s time. So yeah, we should, should go into June this year, then we’ll mow them off at some point. We take up the plastic, work, our fields and typically do that in July, then we’re right back into work in the soil and getting ready for,
Eldon: 19:54 – You kind of need to, as far as lifting the plastic and getting your, old plants need to start, well they needed to decompose before we get too far into the bed making process I guess. So we..
Lowell: 20:11 – Yeah, we’ll till them up and work them in.
Eldon: 20:13 – Yeah, basically what I’m trying to say is that starts pretty quickly after our season.
Lowell: 20:21 – Yeah, there’s something to do every month of the year in regards to strawberries.
Eldon: 20:25 – It ends up being kind of a year round process for a, hopefully six week season or so.
Lowell: 20:33 – Yeah. We can be picking in June and sticking those little tips at the very end of July. So yeah, that’s pretty much year round.
Eldon: 20:43 – Yup. Very good. Well that’s pretty much the life cycle of the strawberry stuff here at Yoders’ Farm, it varies or would vary in different parts of the country. This is kind of how it works here in Virginia, Florida, obviously they pick a lot earlier than we do up north they would pick later than we do. Its’ just kind of how it works.
Lowell: 21:10 – Other than that it’s been a good spring. Uh, things are rolling along. Our tomatoes are looking good. We’re getting really good volumes of tomatoes right now with the warmer weather. We’re just trying to keep up with everything.
Eldon: 21:27 – Yeah, that’s always the challenge this time of the year, there’s plenty to do and it mostly just depends how late in the day you want to work or how early you want to get up. So…
Lowell: 21:39 – This spring has actually worked pretty well. I’ve uh, tried to adopt something and it doesn’t always work, but…
Eldon: 21:48 – Are you about to say something you’re going to regret saying in a public forum?
Lowell: 21:51 – I’m about to get philosophical.
Eldon: 21:54 – Okay, go ahead.
Lowell: 21:56 – I’ve been trying to stay out of emergency mode. In other words, think ahead. What will we need to happen down the road and then try to work at that preemptively and that just helps everything go better. If you can keep up with stuff, if you can do it a little before it absolutely has to happen. It helps everything run smoother I suppose that works in most areas of life. But it works in a farm too.
Eldon: 22:33 – Especially when you’re farming with your immediate family and there’s always potential for some, relationship struggles, anything you can do to make sure there isn’t extra stress is always helpful.
Lowell: 22:47 – Yeah, just trying to stay ahead and of course it requires some thinking ahead, what needs to be done and even though something doesn’t absolutely have to happen that day, if you can get to it. It’ll help you down the road.
Eldon: 23:02 – Yup. All right.
Lowell: 23:04 – So that is your little golden nugget of wisdom for the day.
Eldon: 23:07 – There you go maybe we’ll have to have you come up with a golden nugget for every episode. All right. I think that pretty much covers everything we wanted to talk about in this episode unless I’m unless I’m forgetting something. Anything else you want to add?
Lowell: 23:22 – No, it’s just we are looking forward to strawberry season. I know a lot of other people do too. It’s really interesting once the weather starts warming up, I’ve been getting calls for weeks now about strawberry season and I think sometimes people feel like it’s a bother. Well, it’s not really, we’re excited. Just like like everyone is. It’s a pretty unique opportunity to come out and get some, I mean, I think there are some of the most incredible fruit that you can, you can eat. They are fresh. They’re local. There is just nothing quite like strawberry season. Nothing gets people quite as excited as strawberry season…
Eldon: 24:04 – Yeah its a great time of year, Spring, everything gets green and then you roll right into strawberry season. It’s a good kind of entry into early summer almost.
Lowell: 24:14 – So we’re looking forward to having a lot of people out here seeing a lot of smiling faces and some red fingers and just have people out enjoying the farm.
Eldon: 24:26 – Yep. All right, well that is it for this podcast. If, you want to listen to other episodes, you can head over to our website, yodersfarm.com/podcast, or you can subscribe to this podcast, “Conversations with Yoders’ Farm” in your favorite podcast app. There are links over on the website on that podcast page as well to the majority of podcast apps. So if you want to subscribe to get future episodes, you can do that. We’d appreciate it. And if you have a couple extra moments, feel free to leave a review on iTunes or wherever you’re listening to this. That always helps, supposedly from my two episodes of history here. So yeah, that’s it for this week we’ll be back in two weeks with another episode. At least that’s the plan and we’ll see you all later.
Lowell: 25:26 – Take care.
Outro: 25:45 – ::Music::