We did it! Year one of Thornfield Farm strawberries is a wrap.
Strawberries are a new and significant crop for the farm. We are growing strawberries on an annual schedule—planted in the late summer/fall, over-wintered, and pushed to an early harvest in May. I stole this strategy from our friends at Six River Farm in Maine, where I learned everything I know about farming, and it worked really well for us this year. Of course, there were a lot of unexpected twists and turns and we will do some things differently next time, but I have to say, on the whole it was a great success!
So in honor of our first solid year as berry growers, here's a recap of our efforts and some learnings for next year.
- Our first berries came in the third week of April—we ate a few as a family and sold the first few pints at our Saturday market on April 22nd
- The berries produced steadily for 5 full weeks
- In total we harvested and sold 804 pints grossing almost $3,500
- The berries peaked in their fourth week bringing in 223 pints.
- Heading into the 6th week we expect there will be a few berries on the plants, but we'll just keep em' around for the family members to munch on—it's time for the team to move on to harvesting our summer crops!
- Last fall we bought 1,000 plants at $.35 a plant costing a total of about $400 after transport
- We spent another $500 or so in labor, including planting, preparing beds, weeding, and covering the berries through the fall and winter
- Harvesting was by far the largest expense in the operation. To keep up with the fruit we harvested three times a week. Three of us picked for an anywhere from an hour and three hours each harvest leading to an estimated $1,000 labor expense on the whole 5 week harvest
- in total the berries cost about $2,000 to produce
- For the whole crop we netted approximately $1,500 this spring
- We also benefitted from the intangible profit of having such a desirable crop available so early in our season. It is challenging in the early spring to produce really exciting crops—I mean, we all love lettuce, but it's got nothing on a sweet, juicy berry!
- It's a short and sweet season, but definitely worth the effort!!
But, those are just the numbers. We also learned a ton (and suffered from some of the lessons learned), so here's the list of what we found and what I hope to do better next year:
- Different varieties produce very different results! We grew two varieties this year; Sweet Charlie and Chandler. The Sweet Charlies came in first, and they are incredibly sweet and delicate. The berries are on the smaller side and they have a tendency to be a bit deformed, but the flavor is unbelievable. The Chandlers were much more productive, came in a bit later, and could be a little too tart in flavor if harvested too early. Also, the Chandlers seemed to get sweeter and more complex in flavor as the season went on, particularly with more rain/irrigation.
- Covering is a mixed-bag. We tried a number of covering/forcing strategies to help the plants bloom more prolifically and earlier. These efforts came with very mixed results. One half of our plants were protected with row cover all winter. These berries were also in a slightly warmer location. As a result they produced more blossoms much earlier in the season. They also suffered much more significantly from the late frost we had in March—I estimate we lost about a third of our harvest potential from those plants from that frost. After the frost we covered this first, warmer section of berries with a low tunnel system that had them under greenhouse plastic very close to the plants. Ultimately, these plants were not nearly as healthy as the other patch. I think the combination of the frost and the following intense heat put stress on the plants and allowed the pests (we had a real irritating infestation of spider mites) to spread more rapidly.
In the upper field we had a separate planting that turned out much better. This planting was neglected all fall/winter and as a result did not have nearly as many blooms affected by the March frost. We also mulched the area with straw, which I think slowed the plants a bit but helped them develop more blooms in the long run. In this upper planting we experimented with a DIY hoop house. This tunnel was about 7 feet high at the center and covered two of the three beds. In the beginning it did seem to be making a difference—those plants seemed to bloom more, earlier. However, by the end all of the plants were producing pretty equally and I'm not sure it made a huge difference.
- Rain? We had a ton of rain toward the end of the season. At that point we had taken all of the covers off of all the plants and just let the chips fall as they would. I was surprised that the berries held up as well as they did. I feared that the rain would cost us a significant portion of the harvest, and we did lose some to rot/damage. But, overall we still raked in a lot of fruit. Also, particularly for the later variety (the Chandlers), the excess moisture seemed to enhance the flavor. So... I don't really know what the lesson is there, but the berries are certainly tougher than I feared!
- We're going to grow our own plugs! Both of the varieties turned out to be great in different ways, so we are going to allow our mama plants to "runner out" and transplant these baby strawberries into a new location.
- We're going to buy in some new varieties as "bare-root" plants. Last year we wanted to plant them much later in the fall so there were no bare roots available, but since we're also transplanting some of our own this year we should be able to do them all in-sync.
- We're going to cover half the crop (the later berries) in straw mulch over the winter and let them come on more slowly. The other half we'll cover well in the winter and be much more mindful to protect them from frost when they bloom in the early spring!
Here's to another great berry harvest in 2018!