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Research Extended on Growing Strawberries in Plastic

by Stan Maddux

Published: Friday, January 27, 2023

USDA has awarded funding to extend research on how to make raising strawberries in soil covered by plastic more profitable.

Purdue University has received over $127,000 to try and develop a system where strawberries can be successfully grown for more than just one year in plastic mulch.

The two-year grant announced by the Indiana State Department of Agriculture is part of more than $400,000 in USDA funding for three other specialty crops projects in the state.

"I look forward to seeing the good work these projects accomplish," said Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, who's also the state's secretary of agriculture and rural development.

Early research indicates strawberry plants in beds of soil covered by plastic mulch produce larger fruit and higher yields during the first year than traditional matted row fields, said Dan Egel, a plant pathologist at the Purdue University campus in Vincennes.

He said better production is from plastic mulch helping to keep weeds that could stunt the growth of the plants from emerging out of the soil.

Egel said the plastic mulch also helps the soil retain moisture levels because of the buffer provided from wind and sunlight.

Underneath the mulch are drip lines providing fertilized water to the plants.

Wenjing Guan, an associate professor in the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture at the Vincennes campus, helped spearhead the research ongoing since at least 2019.

Specifically, Guan said the money is aimed at developing ways of getting a second year of excellent quality, high yielding plants out of the same growing system.

Guan said an extra growing season means not having to replant.

"That saves money," she said.

Typically, Egel said the performance of strawberry plants in any growing system begins to drop after the first year and keeps diminishing annually.

Egel said the plants have what's called runners or a little stem.

If the stem touches the ground, it'll grow another strawberry plant.

Egel said the mother plant then becomes more focused on the health of the new growth and less on the fruit.

Guan said keeping the plants from reproducing is one of the keys to extending the productive life of the plastic mulch plants.

"We have to figure out ways to control those runners," she said.

Another grant for over $87,000 is for Green Bridge Growers in Mishawaka to increase demand for locally grown produce through what's called a Farm to Early Care and Education initiative.

The effort includes promoting healthy eating practices for young children and their caregivers along with expanded access to food for families lacking resources statewide.

Close to $130,000 also was awarded to the city of Indianapolis for a program where local minority-led urban farms supply produce to grocers and other small businesses.

The "Seed to Store" project in that community is in its second year of providing specialty crops like collards, lettuce, peppers and watermelon to consumers.

Another $69,000 in USDA funds is also going to develop a demonstration trailer containing live bees and equipment related to harvesting honey.

The manned trailer will travel to 4-H clubs, farm shows and other places like schools across the state to provide education and training on producing honey.

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