Saturday, July 14, 2012

Farm Bulletin: A Question of Strawberries


Decisions, decisions. That's what it's all about, even on a farm. Contributor Anthony Boutard discusses his process when it comes to choosing what works for Ayers Creek Farm. As well as what doesn't.

A couple weeks ago in the Hillsdale Farmers' Market newsletter, assistant manager Sarah West noted that one of the most frequently requested foods at the information stall are organic strawberries. It interested us because we have often toyed with the idea of growing strawberries, and the lack of this crop illustrates some of the challenges farmers face when deciding what crops to grow.

As organic growers, our stall should put to rest the claim that certain crops can't be grown organically. That is a prevarication, not a fact. Dependency upon synthetic crop inputs is relatively recent, and there is no crop that we can think of can't be produced without them. In fact, strawberries have naturalized on our farm and we find the occasional plant with the most sublime fruit you could ever dream of.  The lack of organic strawberries has nothing to do with organic farming, instead it is largely due to the historical structure of agriculture in Oregon. 

In 1965, there were roughly 14,000 acres of strawberries harvested in the state. Most of the crop was sent to processors for making jam and pie filling. By 1990, the acreage had dropped by half, and in 1999 it halved again to about 3,500 acres. Currently, the harvested acreage is fluctuating between 1,700 and 2,000 acres. These data show the change that has happened in the industry. Most of the strawberry producers gained their experience in the processor market and, as it collapsed, shifted to fresh market as the processors left the state or started using imported fruit. Historically, many of those growers had roadside stands and, as the shift occurred, they used that experience to move into fresh market. Most of the strawberry acreage shifted over to a more lucrative form of farming, nursery production.

There was no tradition of organic strawberry production in Oregon, so it is hardly surprising that as the industry shrank all of the remaining strawberry growers used synthetic inputs. At this point, growing fresh market strawberries is an "old sector" and there is no economic incentive for a young farm to make the substantial investment to grow the crop. Berry prices across the board are too cheap for a farmer considering a new planting. Beets and lettuce are a better investment for people entering the business: small package of seed, lots sweat equity with a low risk of failure due to weather. With fruit, a few hours or days of ill-timed rain and the farmer has to contend with the disappointment of losing a substantial chunk of income, as well as upset customers. So the cohort  most likely to bring an expertise in organic farming, young farmers, have little reason to consider fruit because the older cohort, and that includes us at Ayers Creek, have made our investment and suppress fruit prices.

There is an additional twist that is integral to our character as organic growers, and the reason why we answer "no" whenever we consider strawberries. Over the past half century, strawberry varieties have been selected and reselected in breeding programs that use synthetic fertilizers, aggressive soil sterilization, fungicides and insecticides. At the present, there are no varieties that have gone through a selection process for robust performance on organic farms. So we would be starting with debilitated plants that are essentially chemically dependent. In fact, all of the commercially available strawberry plants are grown in chemically fumigated soils and that sets up additional restrictions under the rules of organic agriculture. That is an additional barrier that can change, but as long as the price of strawberries remains so low there is no economic incentive for a shift toward organic breeding programs. 

Those naturalized strawberries we encounter from time to time gave us an idea about seven years ago. We dug up several hundred and planted them in a managed field. Our goal was to find a population with good natural resistance to disease and replicate the interesting diversity of flavors we found in those volunteers. Similar to what Frank and Karen Morton do with their lettuces. The wildlings, as we called them, were really good and we discovered we were really bad at growing strawberries. The farm has to be a good match with the farmers' personality, and we grow other crops with greater pleasure and success.

Smaller photos of strawberry plants from OregonStrawberries.org.

3 comments:

Jo said...

I have been buying sustainably grown (no fertilizers or pesticides yet not officially stamped ORGANIC per say) from Thompson Farms out near Boring for years. They are not the most gorgeous strawberries, but they have the most intense strawberry taste I have yet to encounter in Oregon strawbs. People rave about my jams...I make them with no sugar and they are still fabulously intensely flavored.

KAB said...

Wow, Jo, sounds like you've got it figured out! And those jams sound amazing…

Laurie Carlson said...

Thanks for the informative article, good insights into the situation. Always looking for those good berries!