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Monday, April 18, 2016

Flat Aggie Enjoys North Carolina Strawberries


I love to eat strawberries so when Farmer James invited me to visit his strawberry farm in North Carolina this spring, I jumped at the chance. 

I didn’t know the state of North Carolina was the 4th largest grower of strawberries.  The plants have red berries in the spring, but farmers start working in the fields long before then.
Farmers use a tractor and disk to plow the soil in August.  Then they shape soil into raised beds, which helps water drain.  Finally, they use a piece of equipment called a bedder to lay black plastic over the bed.  I wish I could have seen all the machines in the field, but Farmer James showed me pictures.
The plastic will help keep weeds from growing and keep the soil warm in winter.  Growing strawberries on plastic is called “plasticulture”.  Almost all farmers in North Carolina grow strawberries on plastic.

Drip tape, which is a thin piece of plastic with tiny holes, is lain under the plastic.  This is how the farmer waters the plants.  They like to water plants this way because it uses less water.
Farmers don’t plant seeds.  They plant plugs, which are plants that have soil around the roots, or bareroot plants, which don’t have soil.  Did you know 15,000 plants are planted on one acre, which is a little larger than a football field?  Each one is planted by hand!

The plants grow all winter.  They will start blooming in February or March.  The white flowers are really pretty.  Farmer James told me a strawberry will grow from every flower.  He said it takes one month for a flower to ripen into a strawberry that is ready to pick.
In North Carolina strawberry season typically starts in mid-April but this winter has been really warm, so farmers started picking berries early. 
While I was visiting, the weather got really cold.  Farmer James told me he needed to protect the flowers from freezing because the temperature dropped to 32 degrees Fahrenheit.  If the flowers are damaged, there won’t be any strawberries.

Farmers have two ways to protect the plants and Farmer James uses both.  Some plants were covered with row covers, which help keep the soil from getting to cold.  The covers are held down with bags of rocks.
The other way to protect flowers is to spray water over the plant.  The water will freeze around the flower, insulating it from the cold.  It’s like putting a coat on a flower!
 


As you can see from this picture, a plant can have flowers, green berries and red, ripe strawberries at the same time.  This is why the berries are all picked by hand.  Strawberries won’t ripen after they are picked, so it’s important to only pick the juicy red berries!

As a child growing up on a tobacco farm, Farmer James started a garden, selling produce to the farm’s employees. At age 15 he named his company Fresh-Pik Produce. The next year, with driver’s license in hand, Farmer James began selling produce to a local grocery store, Bailey Red and White, then Piggly Wiggly.

Fresh-Pik now sells produce across the United States and into Canada.  In addition to strawberries, Farmer James also grows watermelons, sprite melons, cantaloupe, romaine lettuce, cabbage, collards and field greens. 
Farmer James also sells his crops, including strawberries, at his farm market, Dean’s Farm Market.  Some people even come and pick their own berries.  Teachers bring their students to his farm every year so they can learn about strawberries.  They also hold events throughout the year, including summer camps.
People in North Carolina like strawberries so much, they named the fruit the official state red berry.  I can’t wait to eat all these strawberries!

To learn more about Farmer James, visit Dean’s Farm Market at deansfarmmarket.com and freshpik.com.  For lesson plans or other information on growing strawberries in North Carolina, visit the NC Strawberry Association at www.ncstrawberry.com.

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