WATSONVILLE, Calif. — As a new research center for strawberries gears up, scientists are already in the midst of projects to improve strawberry nutrition, monitor lygus bug infestations and facilitate farming without fumigants.
University of California and other researchers are involved in about 15 studies to help strawberry growers continue to thrive in a new era when water is more scarce and methyl bromide has been phased out.
Among the concepts that scientists have been trying out to control berry-busting bugs and diseases are raised bed troughs and “soilless” fields, according to a more than 200-page summary of the most recent projects by the California Strawberry Commission.
“Increasing regulatory restrictions and rising production costs make the efforts of these researchers critical for the continued viability of the California strawberry industry,” research committee chairman Carl Lindgren said in the report.
The projects come as California Polytechnic University-San Luis Obispo has hired two renowned plant pathologists — Gerald Holms and Kelly Ivers — to head research and development at its new Strawberry Sustainability Research and Education Center.
The center will work on soil-borne plant pathogens and other issues, using area growers as well as faculty and students for its projects.
All the research will be useful to growers such as Lai Seng Saetern, whose family farms organic strawberries on rented ground near Cottonwood, Calif. With the loss of key fumigants looming, organic acreage statewide went from 1,776 in 2012 to 2,532 acres last year, according to the commission.
“Certainly with the ‘farming without fumigants’ initiative, we knew we weren’t going to find a solution overnight,” commission spokeswoman Carolyn O’Donnell said.
The methyl bromide phaseout was supposed to be completed by 2005, although agricultural users with no feasible alternatives have been given a critical-use exemption. A state study last year acknowledged that California’s $2.3 billion strawberry industry will have to keep using fumigants for years to avoid a drop in revenue.
The commission has spent millions of dollars in recent years on researching alternatives to injecting methyl bromide and other gaseous pesticides into soil, including crop rotation, using natural sources of carbon to eliminate soil pathogens and sterilizing soil with steam.
Steve Fennemore, a UC researcher based in Salinas, has been testing a tractor outfitted with a boiler to steam soil as an alternative to methyl bromide. Steam technology was being explored more than a century ago but was set aside when methyl bromide became a standard tool.
The commission and the state Department of Pesticide Regulation are in the midst of a three-year, $500,000 effort to grow strawberries in peat, tree bark or other non-soil substances that are disease-free.
The research aims to help growers combat such pests as the lygus bug, whose infestation can lead to smaller or irregularly shaped berries, according to the UC’s Statewide Integrated Pest Management program.
Meanwhile, new UC-developed strawberry varieties that yield more fruit per acre are one reason California strawberry projection has set records in seven of the past eight years, O’Donnell has said.
California Strawberry Commission annual production research reports: http://www.calstrawberry.com/research/researchreport.asp