UNH researchers help discover ways to extend strawberry growing season

  • Low Tunnels and new strawberry crops at New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station. Courtesy Kaitlyn Orde

  • Fresh strawberry crops are shown at New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station. Courtesy Kaitlyn Orde

  • Low tunnels and new strawberry crops are shown at New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station. Courtesy Kaitlyn Orde

Monitor staff
Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Fresh fruit lovers across New England have reason to rejoice after researchers at the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of New Hampshire discovered techniques for extending the growing season of strawberries to four times its original length.

The researchers’ efforts, done in conjunction with research in Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina and New York, are aimed at helping farmers in the Northeast and Upper Midwest produce greater crop yields for strawberries.

“We have an incredibly short growing season in New England for strawberries,” said Kaitlyn Orde, a graduate student researcher. “It’s an in incredibly important early season crop.”

Orde said strawberries, which have a growing period of four to six weeks, help drive a lot of early revenue for local farmers.

“It’s important for early-season income,” she said. “But (farmers) don’t get to reap the benefits beyond the four- to six-week period.

According to Becky Sideman, a UNH Cooperative Extension professor who has worked extensively on the project, strawberries generate around $1.85 million in revenue for local farmers.

In order to extend the growing season, two strategies already widely in practice in parts of Europe were tested for use in the Northeast.

Researchers tried using a new type of strawberry plant – the day-neutral – and growing the plant in low tunnels meant to protect the fruit from outside conditions.

“It can help us extend the (strawberry growing) season to take up our entire growing season,” Orde said. “You can be picking fruit all the way from late spring to Thanksgiving.”

Orde said using the day-neutral plants was especially useful due to their bountiful production when compared with the June-bearer plant currently used across the Northeast.

“June-bearers only have one flush of fruit but the neutral varieties have the ability to keep putting out flower and fruit,” she said.

The day-neutrals will only stop producing fruit only once temperatures fall below 40 degrees.

With better producing plants in hand, finding a way to protect them against the variable weather of the Northeast and upper Midwest became of the utmost importance – that’s where the low tunnels come in.

“Low tunnels are very small tunnels,” Orde said. “They’re 3 feet tall and covered with plastic ... they reduce rot.”

Orde said an extended season not only benefits farmers, but consumers in New Hampshire who want to eat fresh, locally grown fruit throughout the year, and who are usually forced to buy strawberries from California and beyond during most parts of the year.