I hope you have been enjoying your Terra Firma strawberries in your boxes; emails, Facebook comments and other sources seem to indicate that you are.
Strawberries and tomatoes are the “Alpha” crops, the royalty at our farm: strawberries are the kings of Spring, and tomatoes are the Queens of Summer. Both produce double or more dollar value than any other crop we grow, per acre. Both are the most popular crop for their particular season. And it’s a good thing, because both strawberries and tomatoes are more work to grow than just about any other vegetable crop.
Strawberries spend an inordinate time in the ground. Preparation begins in June when we plant a cover crop of cowpeas that rejuvenates the field and pulls in nitrogen from the air. Those get plowed under in August, and the berries planted around Labor Day.
By the time we receive the “bare root” plants — the leaves trimmed off and the long tangled roots packed 1500 or so into boxes — they are already a year old. Strawberry nurseries grow the plants during the previous summer and into fall, then dig them up and store them just above freezing temperatures for several months. In this way they trick the plants into believing they have gone through a long winter. Strawberries, you see, do not produce fruit until they are a year and a half old.
At Terra Firma and most vegetable farms, transplants are normally planted using machines that grab the leaves. But since strawberry plants arrive without leaves, they must be planted by hand, taking care not to leave any delicate roots exposed to the air. It’s also important not to bury the “crown” — the growth point where new leaves will emerge — below the soil.
We grow strawberries using plastic mulch that reduces weeds and protects the ripening fruit from the soil. But the weeds that poke up through the holes and grow on the edges must be controlled — many of them by hand. We weed our berry patch three times each year — more than any other crop we grow.
Once berry harvest begins, our biggest enemy is the weather. Strawberries like warm, dry weather. Frost, rain and extreme heat all damage the fruit. This is why most berries in California are grown close to the coast. Our location in the valley is a much risker place to grow the crop, which is why we are probably the largest grower in Yolo County with our 4 acres.
The warmer the temperature, the quicker we need to get the delicate berries picked and in the cooler. So it’s all hands on deck from whenever the dew dries on the fruit until the temperature hits 85 degrees. If you can’t find someone at Terra Firma at 8 a.m. this time of year, she or he is likely picking berries. On hot days, we don’t get all the ripe fruit picked. On cool days, we often harvest all day.
We grow two varieties of berries. Chandler are the melt-in-your-mouth fruit that shrivel quickly even in your fridge. Unfortunately they also melt in the hot sun, and the plants stop making fruit when it gets hot. Camarosas are the firmer variety and they tolerate heat better and help us extend the season. Whatever the weather, both varieties stop producing fruit when the days start get shorter, signalling that summer has arrived.
We rotate the strawberries around the farm. The sandy soil that the berries like also makes a good home for potatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, leeks and garlic. By only growing them in the same field once every four years, we help avoid some of the diseases that can kill the plants and reduce yields. And conveniently, those fields are not favorable for growing our other “royalty” crop — tomatoes.
Enjoy the season.