The future-proof strawberry
"Strawberry farmers destroy crop" was a frequently read headline this year - its content the result of many factors that combined to make it economically unviable for farmers to put strawberries up for sale. What does sustainable strawberry cultivation look like?
The area of open land used to grow strawberries in Germany has been declining since 2017. "One of the reasons for this is that the number of farms is declining overall," explains Simon Schumacher, managing director of the Association of Southern German Asparagus and Strawberry Growers (VSSE).
"In addition, some farmers are switching to arable farming or other areas where, for example, harvesting is less complicated and time-consuming to organize"
Schumacher adds. With crises such as Corona or the war in Ukraine, it has become even more difficult than before to find helpers for harvesting and plant care. And in Germany, around 77,000 of these helpers are needed each year to bring the berries from the field or greenhouse to the store. On the other hand, protected cultivation is increasing - for various reasons:
We spoke to Bart Jongenelen. He is part of the research team at the Delphy Innovative Soft Fruit Center (ISFC) in Horst, Netherlands. Here, research is being conducted into what the strawberry cultivation of the future may look like and how it can already be designed to benefit farmers and consumers. He also explains, why protected cultivation can be more attractive for farmers.
What is it that you do at Delphy?
I am responsible for the research centre Delphy ISFC. At Delphy, we research different varieties of soft fruit and their growth. Additionally, we look into artificial lighting technologies and different substrates. Here, we especially work with soft fruit. Our current project is the development of a growing concept with everbearers that give continuous production on stable levels. We are looking at different production periods here and see how we can optimize them. We are also researching energy consumption with these varieties - and the potential for automation.
So you are looking for the future of strawberry cultivation?
You could say so! However, we at Delphy want to develop knowledge that can be put to use in the next three to five years, so it has some direct effect.
What qualifies strawberries as an object for research? What makes them unique as a plant and worth a research object?
Strawberries are actually much more interesting than you could expect them to be. They are a highly discussed topic nowadays. Their use in vertical and indoor farming is just being explored and improved more and more. All over the world, experts are discussing how the future of strawberry cultivation will look like - and we are taking our part in creating it, which is great.
And - who doesn’t like strawberries? They are great fruit!
From your perspective, what would the ideal strawberry plant look like? Would it grow in the greenhouse or on the field?
It would probably be grown on substrate under controllable circumstances like in the greenhouse, in a polytunnel or in a tabletop system. Through this, the farmer would be in control of the environment and could adjust according to climate and weather. These are factors which nowadays make the growing complicated.
Through the controlled environment and ideal conditions, it would of course have excellent taste and fruit quality, be resilient against pests and diseases, and would bring a high yield.
Is your goal of the research to find this ideal plant?
We are hoping to find a way to produce yield almost year-round with everbearing plants. This is looking like a future-proof strategy.
How is that?
Being able to grow everbearers unlighted almost year-round brings multiple advantages like spread production, spread risk in sales, and possibilities in system approaches on plant care.
Can your research also help with the problem of labor availability?
To some extent, yes. We are looking to make the plants more accessible for automation like robots as well. They can support the growers in harvest and plant care. Right now, a thing that makes planning so hard are the peaks in harvesting and plant care. We have times in the harvesting period when a lot of strawberries are ripe and some where only a few need to be picked. This of course requires more or less harvesters in the greenhouse. If we can stretch the growing period, the farmer needs the workers continuously, which also makes planning easier.
So the stretching of peaks is something that is an advantage for robot technology?
Yes. A stable level of ripe fruit is much easier to automate. Robot picking can also be an advantage for high-demand markets like exporting overseas - you really have to be careful when harvesting these fruit, because bruises lead to a much shorter lifespan of the berries. With robots that do not touch them, more berries actually make their way to their destination without being wasted or going bad.
Will the future of strawberry cultivation be indoors?
I do think so. It doesn’t have to be black or white, though. But at least a semi-controlled environment is something that will be required for a future-proof growing strategy, I think. We don’t have to change our agriculture from one day to the next. It can be in small steps - but they have to be taken to ensure a sustainable agriculture.
Thank you, Bart, for the interview! We would also like to take this opportunity to thank the team from Delphy, who have been our research and development partners for a long time. More information about their work can be found here: https://delphy.nl/en/teams/team-delphy-isfc/
Thank you, Simon Schumacher, as well for sharing your great knowledge and experience with us!