Strawberry Production Systems: Matted Row VS. Plasticulture: EP70 | Snow Notes

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[Andy] This is the Ag Engineering podcast that rolls right into the details on tools, tips, and techniques that improve you, your farm and our world. I’m your host, Andy Chamberlain from the University of Vermont Extension. And this podcast is sponsored by Northeast SARE. Thanks for listening.
[Stephen] My name’s Stephen Park and I farm at Full Belly Farm in Monkton, Vermont with my wife, Sarah. And we, the farm is just a little over a hundred acres, about 110 acres. We grow strawberries and vegetables, blueberries, raspberries, small fruits and vegetables. Most, a lot to pick your own and sell retail through farm stand and some wholesale. We’ve been on the farm here, this, we just completed our fifth season, but I worked on organic vegetable farms for about a decade before that, so.
[Andy] What’s your climate zone here?
[Stephen] See, we are five, A.
[Andy] It’s a little warmer than some parts of the state.
[Stephen] Doesn’t feel too warm to me, but…
[Andy] What’s your sales range?
[Stephen] We will be doing a little over 400,000 in sales this year. And that’s about, about doubled from in the five season. So, starting from our first season in 2017.
[Andy] What’d you make that first season?
[Stephen] I think, if I remember correctly, we finished the season out at just under 190.
[Andy] Not bad for year one.
[Stephen] Think so, yeah. Pick your own berries are definitely the biggest market for us, what drives most of our market. So, pick your own strawberries, blueberries, and we’re bringing more, we’re replanting a lot of raspberries, so, starting to pick your own raspberries as well. And then we do plant sales in the spring, which is something we’re growing into more. This was kind of our first year of really doing a little bit larger scale, but that’s a direction we’re really going. We do wholesale, mostly at this point to a few grocery stores, you know, city markets and Shelburn supermarket Lantman, some of the local grocery stores. We have sold a fair amount to the schools at Burlington schools in past years, although the pandemic kind of threw all that off. And we were going to Shelburn farmer’s market for a few years, which was a really good market. It got canceled last year and we found we could make up for out of our farm stand, we actually covered everything that, any loss that we would’ve had from the market by growing our farm stand. So, we decided not to go back this year. So… We’re already open seven days a week to the public here. We don’t really have to go set up at another retail location, so.
[Andy] What’s your percentage of retail here on farm versus wholesale?
[Stephen] Let’s see this year, it’ll be, approximately two thirds retail on the farm and a third wholesale. Somewhere around that, that’s changed a lot over the past five years. In our first years, we were much more wholesale and as we’ve grown our customer base and grown our retail operation, that’s kind of absorbing a lot of our wholesale, so, which is great, that’s the direction we’re trying to go, so.
[Andy] Yeah.
Today’s episode comes to you from Monkton, Vermont, where we’re talking with Stephen Park of Full Belly Farm. Stephen, welcome to the show. If you could describe your farm in one sentence, what would you say?
[Stephen] Most, like strawberries, are the most important thing for us, but small fruits and vegetables, as well as plants like bedding, plants, flowers, and such.
[Andy] Today, we wanted to talk about mulching your strawberries. So if you could tell me a little bit about that, let’s dive in.
[Stephen] Yeah. So a really important aspect of growing strawberries in Northern climates is protecting them in the winter from the cold temperatures, you know, we see temperatures as cold as negative 20 here in Monkton, and that’s pretty damaging to strawberry plants, especially, it’s mostly, most of the damage actually happens in the freeze thaw cycle, kind of at the end of the winter, if they start coming out of dormancy and start growing and then refreezing, it’s that freeze thaw cycle, that’s, you’re mostly protecting ’em from. Also the freeze thaw uproots them, it uplifts ’em out of the soil and causes more damage. So, yeah, it’s a really important aspect of growing strawberries here. We start spreading straw in late November, typically. We kind of wait till we’ve had several nights in the twenties and you can kind of see the plants are going dormant if leaves are starting to kind of lay down, you can see a change in the plants. Sometimes that runs into early December, but typically end of November. And then the other big benefit of the straw mulch is weed control. So, you know, you really have to have it for the protection for the winter, but then the weed controls is an additional, you know, important part of it.
[Andy] Go ahead and explain a little bit about all the different ways you’re growing strawberries.
[Stephen] Yeah, so, well, so this, like I said, this is our fifth season, but this had been a long time strawberry farm for almost 30 years, since, you know, mid eighties. When we started farming here our first year, we were harvesting strawberry fields that were already planted, almost all the strawberries being grown here were in a matted row system, which basically consists of planting a bear root plant about 12 inch spacing, single row. And then growing that plant out during the season, it develops all the runners, the daughter plants, and they root in and you create a whole matted row. And so, so we were harvesting, we were growing about three acres. We had about three acres to harvest our first year and then as we have been here, so it was a very conventional farm. All the weed control was with herbicides and a lot of pesticide use, so, so we wanted right away to start changing that, that was an important part of us, what we wanted to do here. So, it kind of forced us to start looking at different systems of growing because we realized pretty quickly in our first couple of years, that while the matted row system is great, we had good yields and you know, is a good, reliable system, low cost to plant. But the
weed control is really challenging. The first season, when you first plant them, you can do a lot of cultivation, mechanical cultivation. And I spend a lot of time getting finger weeders and tying weeders and everything set up well and you get great weed control, and then they start sending out runners and they start setting and once the runners are setting, you can’t cultivate in that row anymore, you can just do the pads. So at that point, it all becomes hand weeding if you’re not using herbicides. So, we realized pretty quickly that the amount of weeding on three acres of strawberries, especially since we did have a lot of perennial weed problems starting out, it was, it was just, just too challenging. We did our first season, we did have to spray some herbicide on one field just to save it basically, cause we couldn’t lose that field. That’s the only time we have used herbicides in our strawberries since we’ve taken over since 2017, which I feel really proud of, but it’s, you know, it’s been challenging. So, we started experimenting, I think in 2018, we planted a field, a half acre of our planting on plastic, like a bare root plant, two row, 12 inch spacing on plastic beds, which solves the weed control problems, you know, right away, cultivate the pads or you can put down the weed mat if you want, but you know, solves that in row weed control right away. You are planting twice as many plants per acre, which is expensive. Planting has to be done by hand on plastic. And then you’re removing all the runners from each plant, which is a lot of labor and time consuming, so. So, you’re kind of trading off the labor of weeding.
[Andy] To pruning.
[Stephen] To the pruning. Now, even if it came out, and I think we still were spending a little more time weeding, but even if it came out equal, the weeding is so much more challenging. It’s difficult work. It’s such, like not rewarding work when you’re, you know, hand weeding weeds in a strawberry bed. So, it was a lot easier to train people and to get good results on, and it’s a lot easier on employers to cut runners than hand weed in a matted row. So, we did like, we do like that system better for that reason, but there are, there’s a lot of labor cost in removing those runners. And so we’ve been looking at other systems beyond that. We’re planting, we do a planting every year with plugs, the past three years we’ve done that, where we’re starting a plug with the tips and we can start those in our greenhouse. And then we plant ’em out. We’ve found, we’ve experimented, we’ve only done it three years now, we’ve experimented with timing, everywhere from like mid-September and this year to, we did mid August. We liked the little bit earlier planting with the plugs. Like mid-August is what I think we’re gonna kind of stick with. There’s different opinions on that but, it gives you a longer season, like late summer, fall to grow that plant out. We do one quick pass of clipping off some runners, but it’s really not that much. If you plant a little later, you can get away with no runners, but then you’re risking not getting as much growth on those plants. So, and so with that system, we start plugs in the greenhouse, we set up a mister and we use the tips that you can harvest off of plants we already have is what we’ve done so far. And once they’re rooted up, then we transplant ’em in plastic beds in, like I said, mid-August and grow ’em out. And then, so you’re basically reducing two months of management in the field with those plugs. You know, normally we’re planting in June or even with a matted row, even on, as early as we can in May. So you’re really cutting out a lot of time of having to manage those plants in the field. It’s moving a lot of that labor away from the early season towards late season, which is great since we already kind of, you know, always have labor shortage in June. So, it’s pushing it later, which is great. Also a lot less time to have to manage diseases and pests. And we’ve seen a lot less like leaf disease in those when we’re planting in the later summer like that. So, really like the system, it’s a little challenging to scale up to our full scale, mostly because of the amount of tips we would need every year to do three acres of
strawberries, that’s what we’re planting every year. And also we still haven’t seen, with the plugs, they tend to come on earlier. They fruit earlier in the season. And so, we haven’t grown enough variety selection yet to really determine that we can get that full like four or five weeks of, ideally we get at least four weeks of really good strawberry picking mid-June, mid-July. And so, we have to experiment with some more varieties to make sure before we fully switch over to that, that we can get, reliably get, full season of picking there, just because the timing of those. Any variety you grow as a plug, it comes on earlier than it normally would, even the same variety grown in a different system.
[Andy] Why is that, do you think?
[Stephen] You know, I really don’t have an answer to that and I haven’t really heard anybody else really explain it well to me, it’s kind of odd cause you plant them, you know, you’re planting them a couple months or more later in the season than the other systems. And then they fruit a lot earlier the next year. Now part part of it, I do have an explanation for part of it and that’s that with those plugs, we tend to, we actually don’t use straw mulch on those mostly. We use row covers, mostly like a TYPAR, a heavy weight row cover. And that’s enough to protect ’em in the winter. And I think they, in the late spring or early spring, late winter, they start growing. They kind of wake up a little earlier because they’re not covered in straw, they start waking up, they start developing a little earlier. So, we’re gonna actually experiment this year with some of those plugs that we planted we are gonna cover in straw. I know that there, some people say you have a little reduced yields when you cover those in straw, because some of the growth happens in the spring and you’re slowing that down. But I wanna see, we’re just kind of experimenting with like, with managing flowering and fruiting times so that we can have as long of a strawberry season as possible. So on other systems we’re doing, we’ve experimented with and another system we really like that we are trying to, are gonna try to perfect, and might really switch a lot over to is a matted row on biodegradable plastic. So, we use a lot of biodegradable plastics and as a mulch. And so, with that, you’re planting kind of like, you know, like we’re doing on the other plastic, except you can plant lower density, a lot fewer plants about half the plants, and then you let ’em grow out just like the matted row, all those runners you can kind of go through and poke holes in biodegradable plastic later in the season, and those runners will set into that. We really like that, we’ve experimented with it. The only challenge we had and we have to perfect or improve first is that we had a lot of nutsedge weeds in that field. And so then we found ourselves doing a lot of hand weeding that if that plastic wasn’t there, I would’ve been cultivating mechanically. So, now we’re doing it, but once we get some of that the perennial weeds, the nutsedge specifically, that’s the bad one coming through plastic. Once we get that kind of cleaned up a little better, I think that system has a lot of promise. And then we also do day-neutral strawberries that we plant on plastic and we grow them for one season, plant them and-
[Andy] Still the bioplastic?
[Stephen] Yeah, we have, not in our first years, but now we’re doing bioplastic. And that is, sometimes on those sorts of crops that are longer seasoned, the bioplastic can kind of break down a little too quick. And, but then, at the end of the season, when cleanup time comes, it’s like, okay, I think it was still worth it. Like, maybe we had, later in the season, we had a little more weeds coming through than we liked, or some of the fruit might have gotten a little dirtier, cause that’s the big thing with the plastic, protects the fruit from getting dirty cause you don’t have the straw there it’s to protect the fruit, it’s the
plastic. And so, but I think it’s still worth it, especially if we’re using it in an area with less weed pressure, I really like, I like at the end of the year to not be filling the dumpster, so, you know, we just pull the drip tape and plow it under.
[Andy] Yeah. And the labor to pull up plastic is a pain too, so…
[Stephen] Yeah, exactly.
[Andy] You’re eliminating that step. How do you, how have you observed that plastic breaking down? Is it pretty much gone comes spring or do you find it lingering a while?
[Stephen] Yeah, so, we’ve been real happy with the results with it. If you leave it on the surface, so like our everbearing strawberries at the end of the year, we don’t typically end up plowing them under cause, or tilling ’em under in any way at the end of the season because we pick them right on. And we just had our last pick on those last week. And this is so, you know, we pick ’em right on through October. So, we don’t really have time to get that ground worked up and planted and cover crop or anything at the end of the year, so we usually leave that over winter. And if the plastic is on the surface and not buried, there’s still pieces of it the next year, you know, it’s still there. But once you bury it, it breaks down very quickly. So, which that’s one of the weaknesses with it is right where it varies along the edge is where it first starts breaking down and start and you know, starts even start tearing up there. But as soon as you, like, if you disc it under, til it under at the end of the season, the next spring, you have a hard time finding any at all. Yeah.
[Andy] It’s pretty cool.
[Stephen] Yeah.
[Andy] So they need to come up with a plastic that’s got like two different grades or maybe two different thicknesses where the edges are a little bit more robust where it’ll take a little longer to break down.
[Stephen] Yeah, and they do, there’s the 0.6 mil and the 0.8 mil. And so for our longer season crops, we use the 0.8 mil, slightly more expensive. And for the quicker crops we use the 0.6 cause it doesn’t need to last as long.
[Andy] Yeah.
[Stephen] I actually, I wish they had even one more option a little thicker for strawberries. It would be nice. Everything else, those are fine for, but with the strawberries just cause they’re in the ground so long, it would be nice if they was stuck around just a little bit longer, but.
[Andy] You also grow a bunch of vegetables. Are you using the plastic mulch for your vegetable production too or are those done differently?
[Stephen] Yeah, yeah. We use the biodegradable on almost everything. The only challenges we’ve had with it are nutsedge. We have a lot on the farm and we’re working on getting it cleaned up, but you know, it comes through regular plastic. It really comes through biodegradable plastic. So, so that can be a challenge. And then the only other problem I’ve ever had is with cantaloupe and where they sit on the plastic. And it’s true of all the like winter squashes and melons and stuff where they sit on the plastic, plastic breaks down underneath them, which is fine, except for with the cantaloupe, I’ve had a problem with what I’m pretty sure are actually cucumber beetle larva. And they, because you don’t have the plastic protecting ’em from the soil when it breaks down, they’ve come in and really done a lot of damage to the skins, right where it’s touching the ground and you can get rot and stuff there, so that’s the only, that’s the only time I’ve had other problems with the biodegradable mulch, but otherwise I really like it. It’s been well worth switching over to it.
[Andy] Seem to be working well for you. You’ve scaled up a lot in the last few years. Are you doing any matted row or is everything in plastic now?
[Stephen] Let’s see, next year we will have no matted row. That’s the first year we’ve had none, although, like I said, I think we are gonna start planting again on the biodegradable. I think we’re gonna do that again because we picked on some matted row on biodegradable this year and it was, it did great other than some of the weeds, so the nutsedge specifically. So, I do think that next year we’re gonna switch back to some of that matted row on biodegradable. Yeah. And then all of, so all of those systems, so any of our June bearing strawberries, other than the plugs we are covering in straw mulch.
[Andy] Right. Straw on top of plastic.
[Stephen] Yeah. And that’s the nice thing. So with the biodegradable, you know, it just ends up breaking down underneath that straw with the other, you know, we have to pull it all, and when plastic has been there for a couple of seasons, you know, and we pick from, we’re still kind of figuring some of this out, but we pick anywhere one or two at the most seasons, you know, some people do pick strawberries a lot longer, but it really starts requiring a lot more pesticide use as you know, as they are in the ground longer. So we’ve gone to shorter and replacing ’em more quickly.
[Andy] All right. So let’s talk a little bit more about mulching. You said you’re using row covers on some and straw mulch on others. There’s definitely pros and cons of each. Explain a little bit more about that.
[Stephen] Yeah. So, we use almost all straw, that’s the vast majority. And so it gives really good winter protection and then blocks the weeds out in the pads or like when you’re doing matted row blocks it out in the row itself. And it protects the berries from mud and splashing rain and stuff like that. So the straw is, the straws really the best mulch to use. Like, you know, it’s the best winter protection and it’s the best for all of those reasons. The only reason we, so a lot of people don’t use it with the plugs is because you do get the benefit of some of that extra growth earlier in the spring. Yeah. I mean, that’s the main thing, you get that extra growth in the spring by not having ’em covered. It’s a little scary to me to just have row covers through the winter. And like I said, we’ve only done it three years so far and kind of smaller plant, this year is our bigger plant. We did a half acre plugs this year. Cause I feel like there’s a lot of risk there for, and maybe on a really cold year without a lot of snow cover, we’d see more
problems, but so far the, the TYPAR has been, and we use TYPAR rather than other remade because well it’s heavy duty, but it also, the deer don’t tear through it and deer can be a problem in the winter and the deer really can just poke holes all throughout your remade. But the TYPAR is tough enough to.
[Andy] Yeah, when we were walking around your farm before we started podcasting, I saw deer prints everywhere down there.
[Stephen] All over. Yeah.
[Andy] You said you grow a lot of your own plugs from tips, you called it. Are tips different than the end of runners?
[Stephen] No. That’s what they are.
[Andy] Okay.
[Stephen] Yeah. So the way that works and we’ve got a lot of ideas around how to improve that process, but when the plant sends out runners, you can harvest the tip off before it roots in to anything and on plastic, you know, it protects it from ever rooting in. And so, we harvest those about a month before we want to transplant ’em outdoors. So, if we’re aiming for a mid-August planting, then we’ll harvest those tips off of the plants in mid-June and we use 50 cell trays and push ’em into those trays, into the 50 cell trays, you leave a little bit of, a little kind of barb on the stem that kind of helps hold it and root hold it into the soil while it’s rooting, so they don’t fall over. And then we set up a missed system, so on a timer. So we have misters on that come on every so many minutes and runs for, you know, a few seconds and it just keeps high humidity, consistent moisture until they start actually developing roots. And then once they start getting roots, you can kind of just go to normal watering. But yeah, so now some of the challenges there are like not wanting to carry diseases from one field to another. So if you’re harvesting out of a field, you really wanna make sure, we do an oxidate dip with those to try to reduce any risk there and then just really wanna make sure that you’re not transferring disease and pests. And then also, some, a lot of varieties are patented, so you’re not supposed to harvest those. And so you have to know which varieties you’re allowed to use and then just getting enough tips. So we’re thinking about trying to grow a lot of our own tips, even more and kind of expand that. And what that would probably look like is doing a planting on plastic early in the, like as early as we can, in the summer so that we can get a lot of runners produced by that mid-June and then harvest ’em. And then we can save those plants to harvest on ’em the next year as well, but kind of grow ’em specifically for runners. I would prefer if we could find a way of growing in a greenhouse and like grow the actual mother plants and like soil-less, you know, in like some sort of soil medium in the greenhouse, rather than out in the field, just to really reduce any risk of transferring disease that we haven’t really found a good way to do that yet. But we’re looking into that.
[Andy] Has disease been a big issue with making your own plugs or not too bad?
[Stephen] Not so far with the plugs, but we have, we deal with a lot of disease pressure on the farm. Like I said, this farm’s had strawberries for 30 years and we have heavier soils, not, definitely not excessively drained soil. So it’s always, it’s kind of this like constant scare of disease pressure with strawberries.
[Andy] And doom.
[Stephen] Yeah. So, we’re really trying to be a lot more cautious about transferring disease and taking other steps, cause it’s, like I said, we’ve gone from what was a very conventional farm with a lot of fungicide use and now like, this year was our first year being fully organic fungicides, you know, just using oxidate basically, which we had good results with. We didn’t have major mold problems and everything. So, you know, we’ve kind of each year incrementally dropped things and made changes to try to allow us to, you know, get closer to the organic production.
[Andy] Yeah. I just, I keep thinking back on how you went into kind of the either plugs or plastic culture away from matted rows so much because it was more runner management, which you said was easier than weed management and turns out it’s not just runner management, but that’s also plug harvesting for the next batch. So it’s almost a beneficial step, I mean, in two ways than one.
[Stephen] Yeah.
[Andy] So that’s like kind of a win-win in my opinion.
[Stephen] Yeah. And so, just some, we haven’t really done this yet, but just kind of making some, we’re doing some calculations and some guesses on like how much we would have to plant to harvest enough tips to plant our kind of three acre field.
[Andy] Yeah.
[Stephen] I think we would be, I think we would have to plant about a half acre on plastic to grow out enough tips to plant three acres of plugs. And so, and we can mark it like three to three and a half acres. We have the markets for that right now. So, yeah, as we move forward and experiment with that, we might be doing that, but we haven’t settled. We’re kind of like still trying, trialing a lot of systems and haven’t settled on any one particular system yet.
[Andy] Yeah. Well it seems like the kind of combination of systems is working out pretty well. And it, like you said, it also plays into the effect of altering when it’s ready to extend the season.
[Stephen] Yeah, timing.
[Andy] Thanks for listening to today’s episode. I hope you enjoyed it. If I can ask you or direct you to do one thing that is to go to the website for this podcast, that’s There you’ll find the show notes. You’ll find links to the farmer who we chatted with today, as well as photos or videos from the call when I visited the farm. If you’ve got some feedback to share my contact information’s on there, or you can leave me a voicemail and you can do that right from the link
in the description, in the mobile app you’re listening to this to, so go ahead and do that. Thanks again for listening and I hope you have a great day.