February 25, 2018

Why Grow Strawberries Using a Low Tunnel?

Availability of locally grown strawberries is extremely limited in the Upper Midwest, primarily due to the short growing season. Fruit is an important part of a healthy diet, and while there is an expressed interest in having greater access to locally grown strawberries, lack of suitable varieties and production systems has prohibited growers from being able to fulfill this need in our region. This project proposes to study new day-neutral strawberry varieties in an organic low tunnel system to extend the season, improve fruit quality and reduce inputs. Preliminary USDA research on low tunnel strawberries in Maryland shows great potential for the system.  (To read more about the project in Maryland, please click here.) 

Comparative field trials have been established in Minnesota on University research land and on grower cooperator land, in order to test the system in a variety of areas and to foster collaboration among Universities and growers across state lines. If successful, this new method of growing long-season strawberries may help increase the number of strawberry growers in the Upper Midwest, increase yields and therefore availability of locally grown strawberries from June through October. In the long run, this would contribute to improved nutrition among consumers and improved economic and environmental sustainability for specialty crop producers.

Low tunnel strawberries

Strawberries produced from a low tunnel system

Strawberries are a healthy addition to any diet. However, Minnesotans have limited access to fresh, locally grown fruit, largely because of the short growing season. Market farmers growing strawberries are limited to a very short harvest season, because the most successful varieties for field production in our region are June-bearing types. Newer day-neutral strawberry varieties, coupled with novel production methods, may offer growers the option of a longer harvest season using environmentally responsible methods.

Why day-neutrals?

Day-neutral strawberry varieties produce flowers and fruit continuously when temperatures are optimal for plant growth. Older varieties have performed poorly (low yield and fruit quality) in our region, as concluded by research at the University of Minnesota. However, with newly released varieties and newer technologies, fruit quality may be higher. Recent USDA research on day-neutral strawberry varieties grown under low tunnels has resulted in increased yields of high quality fruit when compared to open-field-grown plants, with reduced incidence of bacterial and fungal diseases, fewer weeds and reduced water use.

Goals for our low tunnel, day-neutral strawberry project

  1. Determine if newer day-neutral cultivars grown under organic management on raised beds differ in yield and plant growth characteristics when grown under low tunnels compared to open field.
  2. Use our research and innovative growing techniques to contribute to an increase in the number of strawberry growers in the upper Midwest.
  3. Contribute to improved nutrition among consumers by offering fresh strawberries in a non-traditional time.

 Many thanks to the North American Strawberry Growers Association (NASGA) which helped to sustain this project.