South Texas strawberry trials yielding plump, tasty fruit

WESLACO  —  It’s not easy to find strawberries growing among the lush, subtropical landscape of South Texas citrus, sugarcane and palm trees. But that could change, according to a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service fruit and vegetable specialist.

Dr. Juan Anciso, an AgriLife Extension fruit and vegetable specialist, examines one of eight varieties of strawberries growing in a demonstration plot in Weslaco. (AgriLife Communications photo by Rod Santa Ana)

Dr. Juan Anciso, an AgriLife Extension fruit and vegetable specialist, examines one of eight varieties of strawberries growing in a demonstration plot in Weslaco. (AgriLife Communications photo by Rod Santa Ana)

For several months, Dr. Juan Anciso has been on a sharp learning curve as he tries his hand at growing strawberries a few hundred yards from his office at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Weslaco.

His efforts are funded by a one-year grant from the National Strawberry Sustainability Initiative, funded by the Walmart Foundation and administered by the University of Arkansas Center for Agricultural and Rural Sustainability.

(click on the video below)

Anciso is part of the Texas Strawberry Project Team, whose goal is to make strawberries a mainstream Texas-produced delicacy.

“Texas produces very few strawberries compared to the state’s tremendous market demands,” Anciso said. “The idea is to produce more strawberries here, rather than importing from California or Mexico. The result could be an alternative profitable crop for Texas growers, while consumers enjoy a fresher, tastier product.”

Anciso had planned to hold a field day in late January to share his knowledge with interested growers, but rodents and other varmints crashed his party.

“We planted transplants in early November and started production near Christmas,” he said. “My plan was to hold a strawberry field day Jan. 20, but possums, raccoons and even birds demolished my crop, so it will be sometime in March before we can invite the public.”

Fencing off the strawberry patch with chicken wire a couple of feet tall, plus other control methods, did the trick. By Valentine’s Day, production had returned, he said. Bright red, fragrant strawberries litter the ground again.

Similar strawberry demonstration plots have been set up at various Texas A&M University facilities throughout the state, including College Station, Lubbock and Uvalde.

Each plot is evaluating eight strawberry varieties, grown on both open ground and under what are called “high tunnels,” large plastic covered Quonset hut-style structures designed to offer protection from the environment to the close-cropped plants, Anciso said.

“The tunnels are 20 feet wide, about 15 feet tall in the center, and covered with plastic that can be rolled up on the sides as needed to retain or release solar heat,” he said. “They are open-ended, which allows farm equipment to move through them, and they lack any type of heat or humidity controls like a greenhouse would have.

“Here in South Texas they might serve to fend off cold winter temperatures, but we’ve found that the plants outside the tunnel are doing much better than those under the tunnel. In fact, we’ve had no production in the plants under the tunnel so far.”

The strawberry transplants were planted on three 80 foot long raised beds covered in black plastic and watered using drip irrigation. The black plastic, he said, keeps the soil warm and helps control weeds. The high tunnels cover less than half the length of the rows.

Despite a majority of cool days this fall and winter, Anciso said it became necessary once late last year to roll up the sides of the high tunnel plastic because warm daytime temperatures were curling plant leaves.

Anciso is also finding that not all his strawberries are perfectly shaped.

“There are some deformities among them,” he said. “We’re not sure why. It could be because we overused fertilizer and plant hormones. It’s just one of the many aspects of growing the perfect strawberries that we still have to learn.”

A plant fungus was also once a problem.

“We got powdery mildew, which is usually hard to control. But three treatments with a fungicide ended that problem.”

Anciso suspects that with continued research, strawberries could be profitably grown in South Texas.

“We’ve still got a lot to learn, not only in how best to grow strawberries, but we need to study the economics of growing a profitable crop,” he said. “It’s a high-maintenance, expensive crop to grow with lots of inputs and constant, staggered harvesting. But because strawberries can withstand cold, I can see them in the mix of cold weather vegetables we grow down here in the winter.”

As strawberries continue to grow, Anciso said important data will continue to be compiled, including yield, quality and shelf life.

“We’ll schedule a field day for some time in mid-March when we should have lots of information to release and lots of juicy strawberries to taste.”

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