Strawberry Fields Forever

This week we’re featuring a guest blog by Seth Swanson, who has a background in horticulture and agronomy and is the Horticulture Extension Agent with Missoula County Extension. Seth works with producers, nurseries, landowners, and community members to strengthen and improve local agriculture and plant production.  This is achieved through technical assistance and educational opportunities for commercial producers and hobbyists, as well as a variety of on-farm research. MSU Extension improves the lives of Montana citizens by providing unbiased research-based education and information that integrates learning, discovery and engagement to strengthen the social, economic and environmental well-being of individuals, families, and communities. The Extension Service provides coordination, educational outreach and training using current research-based information and resources to address the needs of the public in the areas of weed & pest management, horticulture/agriculture, youth development, family and consumer sciences, and nutrition.  The Extension’s Horticulture and Plant Clinic programs are great resources and offer help with plant care and pest management issues. Bring in samples of bugs, plants, disease problems and they will identify and give information on how to control them. They also answer questions on landscaping, gardening, soils, and related areas.


Winter is approaching Western Montana, and though the intensity may be relatively mild (for Montana), the duration can make for a challenging environment.  Yes, many of us live in this region so that we can take advantage of the seasonal outdoor opportunities, but as March comes around winter’s grasp often takes its toll.  One factor in particular that makes the winter season seem so long is not the ubiquitous gray sky, the shortened day lengths, or the perpetual ice on the trails; it is the lack of fresh local produce.  How we long for the first bits of green or small flowers that emerge from our gardens, or for the seemingly exponential weekly growth and additions of fresh goods at the farmers markets’ and grocery stores.  Once June comes, we are treated with the jewels of the summer; the strawberry.

Strawberries are indeed a symbol of summer, and are embedded in the memories of nearly everyone taking them back to u-pick farms, fresh pickings from the garden, and the cherished preserves that help ward off summer withdrawals through the long winter.  When we actually take the time to think about where our strawberries come from, it may be difficult to nail down a source.  You may have a small collection of plants in the backyard garden, or you may be lucky enough to live in a town that has a u-pick strawberry farm.  Generally speaking, Montana does not have much for strawberry production, just 13 acres for the entire state in 2012 according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service.  It is not because our state is too cold to grow strawberries; Minnesota in comparison, has nearly 600 acres of strawberries in production (USDA NASS, 2012 Census of Agriculture).

Anybody who has grown strawberries in their backyard knows that despite their dainty white flowers and ruby gems, these plants can be a mess to deal with. Weeding is a bare, pest and diseases management can be a never-ending battle, and spring and fall maintenance is a hassle.  Think of the labor required to expand your ten foot garden bed of strawberries to an entire acre or ten acres!  What makes strawberries more of a challenging crop is that contrary to the efforts required for maintaining the crop, there is a small window of consolidated harvest for June-bearing plants, and smaller yields over a longer season for ever-bearing varieties.  Yet, there is a huge market opportunity for Montana producers to integrate strawberries into their existing production systems.

In 2015, with the support of funds from the Montana Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Block Grant Program, Missoula County Extension began working with producers in Western Montana, including the PEAS farm, to initiate a three-year study to investigate alternative strawberry production strategies.  In particular, we are evaluating the efficacy of annual strawberry production in high tunnels.  High tunnels are the unheated hoophouses that are employed by many small producers in our region to stretch the short growing season out on both ends.  Strawberries are perennials that are typically productive up to three to five years, but if we treat them as an annual crop we can eliminate much of the maintenance required.  Treating this crop as an annual will also allow the producer to grow the plants entirely during the productive state, and open up planting space for alternative crops once the strawberries have been removed.

Planting at the PEAS Farm.

So here is how it works…  Typically June-bearing strawberries are grown as a matted row system where a single row of plants is lined out in the middle of a two foot (or wider bed).  The plants are planted in the spring, and the entire first year is dedicated to establishing the beds through the stolons (runners) and no fruit is harvested.  This requires a significant amount of maintenance with no return until the second season when the plants bear fruit for a small window in early summer.  Contrary to the conventional matted-row system, the plants in the annual system will be planted in the late summer/early fall at a much higher density.  The plants will then produce fruit the following spring and the plants will be immediately removed.  Once the plants are removed, the production bed can be used for an alternative crop, thus maximizing the return on the available planting space.  Additionally, the integration of hoophouses for the annual system will likely result in an earlier harvest. Preliminary results indicate that annual high tunnel production of strawberries begins five to six weeks prior to the perennial matted row system outdoors.  That means fresh strawberries by the first week of May.

Fall high tunnel planting at the PEAS Farm.

Early Berries3

This production strategy could allow for producers in our region with existing infrastructure, to add a high value crop to their production system without sacrificing the production of other crops, and to make use of the shoulder season maximizing the productivity of their high tunnels.  And more importantly (perhaps selfishly), more strawberries produced locally means more tasty gems at the grocery store for us all to consume.