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US: AgriLife Extension opens doors to Texas strawberry industry revitalization

Almost everybody loves strawberries, but with less than 150 acres of commercial production recorded in this state, few have ever enjoyed a Texas-grown variety. Now, thanks to a $158,391 grant awarded last May, from the National Strawberry Sustainability Initiative, which was funded by the Walmart Foundation and administered by the University of Arkansas Center for Agricultural and Rural Sustainability, Texas A&M AgriLife personnel are on the fast-track to change that.

Dr. Russ Wallace, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service vegetable specialist at Lubbock, heads the Texas Strawberry Project Team, whose goal is to make strawberries a mainstream Texas produced delicacy.

He said horticulturists with AgriLife Extension and Texas A&M AgriLife Research are using the grant for their statewide strawberry collaborative effort to address grower, retailer and consumer concerns through five regional teams who are currently investigating and addressing strawberry production issues.

“Our project emphasis includes expanding sustainable strawberry production throughout the state by introducing high tunnel and plasticulture technology to growers in under-served regions, and increasing the knowledge of strawberry production and consumption to consumers across Texas,” Wallace said.

High tunnels are large plastic covered “Quonset-hut” style structures, Wallace said. They’re similar to greenhouses, but lack heat or humidity controls. The structures, whose sides can be rolled up or down to release or retain solar heat, allow for earlier harvests and longer growing intervals, allowing producers to take advantage of optimal markets.

Strawberries, grown under a high tunnel, can be productive well after a frost on the Texas High Plains near Lubbock. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo by Dr. Russ Wallace.)

They also protect the plants, which are planted directly in the ground, from most outdoor climatic conditions which make the structures attractive in areas of high winds, rainfall, dust or early frosts.

Plasticulture involves planting strawberries in raised beds covered with black plastic, he said. The practice warms the soil, thus getting dormant plants into production sooner, retains moisture and suppresses weed growth.

The strawberry team met in late July at Texas A&M University’s horticulture department at College Station. Wallace said the meeting was the first joint effort for all growers, faculty and industry collaborators with over 30 team members attending.

“Through a series of presentations and open discussions, the regional team leaders were able to introduce first-time growers to strawberry production and address the project goals and expected outcomes for our statewide effort,” he said. “Then in early October, the inaugural Texas High Tunnel Conference was held in Bryan.

“We talked about the challenges of growing strawberries and concentrated on addressing high tunnel topics, including marketing, diseases, producing organic strawberries, and heat and moisture stress under the structures. We were elated to find with this first effort that according to our evaluations, 85 percent of the 65 participants found the session either useful or very useful in their attitudes towards strawberry production in Texas.”

The statewide effort is not all classroom instruction as Wallace said more than 30,000 plants are now in the ground at demonstration sites across the state.

Transplanting of the National Strawberry Sustainability Initiative demonstration and research trials began in mid-September in the Western High Plains and South Central regions, he said. These initial transplanting trials were followed by plantings done in cooperation with 18 collaborators working across Northeast and Southeast Texas and the Lower Rio Grande Valley regions. All the trials were installed by the end of October.

“I can tell you coordinating the planting of those 30,000-plus plants for the trials was a challenge, especially those that required construction of high tunnels purchased through project funds,” Wallace said. “Several grower-collaborators in their anticipation for good results also bought additional strawberry plants for their locations.”

Wallace said the project demonstrations include seven high tunnel trials, as well as trials demonstrating pH manipulation, irrigation, shading, black plastic mulch and drip irrigation, pest management, organic practices, and a greenhouse salinity variety trial.

“Part of the project also includes video documentation by AgriLife Communications,” Wallace said. “They have already initiated recording and interviewing producers and faculty during significant growing season events such as plastic mulch laying, transplanting and high tunnel construction as well as during field days throughout the state.

“Their video work was put to good use in early November during a High Plains field day where participants were able to view NSSI project high tunnel strawberry production in Lubbock and Post, and hydroponic strawberries being grown in Floydada.”

Wallace said social media is also being used to get the word out on raising Texas strawberries. A Facebook page, administered by both Texas A&M AgriLife and Prairie View A&M, can be viewed at , as well as the National Strawberry Sustainability Initiative blog site .

“The Facebook site is updated regularly to disseminate current information on the NSSI project to growers, project team members and stakeholders, and to consumers on the weekly activities of the project,” Wallace said. “We are also including upcoming events such as programs, field days and tours that are available across the state.”

For more information on the Texas NSSI project or on their next field day set for Dec. 3 in Plantersville, contact Wallace at or 806-746-6101.

The grants, which were awarded May 29 during the last week of National Strawberry Month, are part of the $3 million Walmart Foundation donation made in February.

As part of the National Strawberry Sustainability Initiative, Texas AgriLife and the other grant recipients have 12 months to complete their projects. The resulting reports are scheduled for release in June 2014.

For more information about the grant and the National Strawberry Sustainability Initiative visit: .

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