Riding a wave of success

2021-11-22T18:58:03-05:00December 2, 2021|Grower Midwest|

Today, Rob Ruhlig is in charge of marketing, promotion and sales of farm and greenhouse products – the position his dad previously held. Photo courtesy of Ruhlig Farms & Gardens

by Sally Colby

In 1970, David and Rose Ruhlig started a 43-acre farm and greenhouse business (more…)

Plasticulture strawberries: Autumn and winter management tips

2021-11-22T18:38:07-05:00December 2, 2021|Grower, Grower East, Grower Midwest, Grower West|

by Tamara Scully

As early autumn’s colder weather settles in, strawberry growers utilizing a plasticulture system are busy with fall planting of plugs into raised beds. Depending on climate, the exact timing of planting strawberry plugs each autumn varies, as the berries will need time to establish themselves before growth is stopped by cold weather.

In a recent Virginia Cooperative Extension webinar, Dr. Jayesh Samtani, small fruit Extension specialist, that the increased temperatures associated with climate change has impacted how late into autumn strawberry planting can occur.

Establishing strawberry plants in a plasticulture raised bed system allows for crown development on newly planted plugs before the winter cold inhibits growth. The goal is to have one to two branch crowns developed prior to dormancy. Strawberries require temperatures of 50º F, which is the base temperature at which they will grow, to continue developing.

Fall-planted strawberry plugs can benefit from the use of row covers to extend the autumn growth period, and row covers can provide other benefits throughout the cold weather months. Prior to using row covers, consulting the long range weather forecast is recommended.

“In order to really use row cover applications in the fall, you have to understand what kind of weather you will be facing in the coming few days,” Samtani said. “Depending on the situation, a lot of growers may not think that row covers are the best use of their time in the fall. It does take labor to put that down.

Creating Microclimates

Growing degree day (GDD) calculations add together the high and low temperatures each day, and then divide that sum in half to determine the mean daily temperature. If the mean temperature is above the crop’s base temperature, then each degree above that base level is a GDD. The days are cumulative.

Depending on the strawberry variety being grown, GDD can vary. Chandler, an old standby, only requires 650 GDD to mature. Other popular varieties can require 800 GDD. Growers in colder climates can select cultivars with lower GDD requirements. And row covers can be utilized to enhance GDD by creating a microclimate with higher temperatures.

Because row covers retain heat, they add GDD, providing the fall-planted crop extra time to grow and allowing for enhanced root development. If planting is delayed, or if the plugs being planted have poorly developed root systems, an autumn row cover can enhance crop establishment and increase spring productivity.

Row covers can also add protection from cold temperatures in winter and be used in spring to protect buds and flowers from frost. For growers who opt not to use row covers to promote fall branch crown development, row cover use in winter and spring can still bring benefits.

Once the mean daily temperature drops below 50º, strawberry crowns go semi-dormant and do not actively grow. Depending on how cold the winter is, row covers can be left on until spring. But in regions where the winter temperatures are mild, leaving row covers on all winter could promote flowering and fruiting, putting plants in more danger of damage from spring frosts.

“You probably don’t want the row covers to stay on for the rest of the winter, because you’re increasing the temperature in the microclimate, and the plants may not get very well acclimated to the cold environment,” Samtani said. “And then you don’t want to advance the plant too far ahead.”

Row covers can also create an ideal habitat for spider mites. It is advised that growers regularly check under covers to scout for these pests. Plant tissue could have decreased cold tolerance if row covers are used in winter and unseasonably warm temperatures occur, followed by another cold snap. And the humidity that can build up under the covers when it’s rainy and sunlight levels are low can promote diseases – such as powdery mildew – to develop.

Broadleaf and other weeds are also more populous when using row covers and can be treated with herbicides. Weeds in planting holes should be hand-pulled.

Freeze events are also a concern even when row covers are used. Depending on plant growth stage, the weight of the row cover and the temperature under the row cover, precautions against frost need to be taken.

Row covers range from lightweight to heavyweight. Each offers protection from cold temperatures, and as protection levels increase with heavier fabric construction, the light levels which can permeate the covers decrease. Lightweight covers allow 85% light penetration and protect crops down to 27º. The heaviest allow only 40% of the light to be transmitted but protect crops in temperatures down to 18º. More than one row cover can be used for added cold protection. Row covers can also protect against moisture loss and desiccation. “There’s pros and cons that come with row cover applications,” Samtani said.

Diseases in Plasticulture Strawberries

Dr. M. Mahfuz Rahman, West Virginia University Extension plant pathologist, discussed diseases of concern in newly planted plasticulture strawberry beds. When plugs are planted in autumn, disease symptoms may not be noticeable. Latent disease can then erupt when the plants are maturing, damaging the crop.

Two diseases of concern are Anthracnose crown rot and Phytophthora crown rot. These can be distinguished from one another by examining the crown, which will be a marbled brown and red if Anthracnose crown rot is the culprit, or a dull brown if it’s rot caused by Phytophthora.

“Many of these infections can come in on the plants,” Rahman stated. “But these are latent infections. These are symptomless at this time.”

A newer disease of concern is Pestalotia blight, which causes leaves to look scorched as they desiccate from the fungal infection. It can eventually kill the whole plant. The fruit can also have disease symptoms. It can be treated with fungicides. Highly infected leaves should also be removed in autumn and early spring.

For growers who are fall planting strawberries into a plasticulture system, management of diseases early on can be an effective tool and is possible.

With the use of row covers in plasticulture, fall-planted strawberries can receive benefits from temperature moderation to protection from browsing deer to frost protection. Knowing which row cover weight to choose, selecting the appropriate time to apply the covers to meet your growing goals and monitoring for pest and disease under the row covers can be a fruitful way to enhance productivity for your next berry season.

Things to know about produce auctions

2021-11-22T18:36:39-05:00December 2, 2021|Grower, Grower East, Grower Midwest|

Each grower chooses how they want to market their product and how many they want in their lot at produce auctions. They can sell whole skids at a time, or just a few boxes. Photo by Joan Kark-Wren

by Courtney Llewellyn

Growers of vegetables, fruits, flowers or any other plant product that grows in bulk know there are several ways to sell their goods. According to Penn State Extension, direct-to-consumer outlets such as farmers markets and CSAs typically garner the best price points, but they’re also the most labor intensive and require a significant amount of time and money spent on marketing. Another option you may not have considered yet is the produce auction.

Becky Clawson, Penn State educator, food systems and local foods, and Jeffrey Stoltzfus, Penn State educator, food safety and quality, recently presented “Produce Auctions for Wholesale Buyers” as a webinar, but it provided some useful tips for those looking to sell to those buyers as well.

First, Clawson addressed some of the common misconceptions surrounding produce auctions: Some may think the goods aren’t local – that there are traceability issues; sellers will only receive rock bottom prices; and the produce may be of poor quality. “While these may be more common at retail auctions, they’re less so at wholesale,” she clarified.

Stoltzfus noted that produce auctions have been around for about 100 years. They help those who are “transportationally challenged” – that means a lot of the Plain community today, but it was also true of the presence of fewer trucks in the past. Today, there are between 90 and 100 such auctions throughout the Northeast, the Midwest and into southern Canada.

“They’re good for farmers because of sales efficiency. There’s less time marketing, less time traveling/delivering, less time managing orders – you pick it, pack it, sell it and get back to farming,” Clawson said. “It’s a low technology outlet with reliable payment.” (Unlike contracts which may have delayed payments, anything sold at auction is paid for that day.)

On the opposite side, the auctions are good for buyers because they better help with seasonality, they offer one-stop shopping and produce is fresh and local (often picked the day of). Buyers can meet the growers and build relationships – auctions don’t have to be anonymous affairs. And there are no delivery delays.

As a grower, you’ll need to register with the auction and receive a permanent seller number. That number, along with what you have on each cart or bin, will go on tags attached to the goods. Auctions tend to encourage large sales, often starting with the largest lots and working their way down. They’re open to any grower that wants to sell, from an FFA project to a large farmer making a living growing just cantaloupes, Stoltzfus said. “There’s a place at the auction for all size growers and all size buyers,” he added.

Another benefit of selling at produce auctions is that each grower chooses how they want to market their product and how many items they want in their lot. You can sell whole skids at a time or just a couple of boxes. The auctions want to give growers the ability to sell all the quality they can.