The last few weeks have been a whirlwind as the rush of planting season has been coupled with some abnormally late frost events and cool nights. Nonetheless, Mother Nature marches on as we start harvesting the first early fruit from our strawberry beds on black plastic. This system of raising berries is an adaptation of a method that comes to us from California and the deep south originally and like all good ideas, it has its drawbacks. The drawbacks are the plants bloom very early in the spring and are subject to frost damage, meaning more nights of pumping water to protect them. There is additional expense in the plastic mulch and drip tape that is used in the system of developing the bed, and an upfront cost of additional plants because the way the system functions depends on a much higher plant population per acre as compared to a traditional matted row system, (which constitutes the majority of what we still do here on the farm.) The plus side of the equation is twofold for us; earliness is the main factor, but there is another subtle benefit for us. With plasticulture we can bring a given acreage of land into meaningful production in half the time, essentially allowing us to double crop our land in the summer.This is because traditional matted row strawberry beds take a full year to establish, whereas a matted row system allows you to fall plant, thus allowing you to produce a short season vegetable crop on the same land as well. So it fills a void for those of us with limited acreage, allowing us to utilize our already short season here in the northeast. We still do both traditional mattted row as well as some plasticulture…. they both have their places.
People often ask about how the crop looks, and I usually respond given the amount of winter injury that I can see in the plants as they come out of the winter. The truth is, not only is this a guessing game, but it has little bearing on the profitablility of the crop for us. The plants can be in the best of shape and loaded with fruit going into the harvest season only to loose a high percentage to fruit rot if the weather turns dark and damp. This is particularly a problem with a dependence upon Pick Your Own for harvesting….the PYO crowd only works on nice sunny days. So, you can have a great crop only to loose it at the very last minute due to uncooperative weather. On the other hand, you can have a rough winter and light fruit set and if the weather is relatively cool,sunny and dry during the harvest season you might harvest a higher percentage of good berries harvested between the farm and PYO crews and actually make out better financially.It is really a crap shoot.
So this tempers our enthusiasm as we enter our 33rd strawberry season. It’s early in the season and the plants endured a fair amount of winter injury. But the weather of late has been good for the plants with no extreme heat and a fair amount of sun despite the unseasonally cool nights. The birds and ground varmints havent really arrived yet to extract their pound of flesh from the crop, so their is an air of anticpation about here. We shift our focus as greenhouse sales wind down a bit and we ready ourselves to open the farmstand in a couple of days and the strawberries will be on the shelves when we do. If you see me and and ask me if it looks like a good year for the strawberries, don’t be surprised if I shrug my shoulders. I am a believer in the words of that great Yankees baseball catcher Yogi Berra who said “It aint over till it’s over…”