Spring rains increase strawberry diseases

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> By Susan Collins-Smith
> MSU Extension Service
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> CRYSTAL SPRINGS, Miss. — Record-breaking rain and cloudy skies this spring increased disease problems in most of Mississippi’s strawberry crop and decreased the sweetness of the popular berries.
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> “It’s been one of the wettest Marches in years statewide, and the wettest March in history for Jackson,” said Bill Evans, a horticulture researcher with Mississippi State University. “When strawberry plants get wet and stay wet, they get diseased.”
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> Evans said most growers are seeing higher than usual occurrences of anthracnose and botrytis, both fungal diseases intensified by excessive moisture. Anthracnose causes unsightly spots that eventually turn the berries dark. Botrytis covers the fruit in gray mold.
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> “Berries need plenty of sun to produce sugars, so they’ll be less sweet this year because of the reduced number of sunny days,” said Evans, who is based at the Truck Crops Branch of the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station in Crystal Springs.
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> Will Reed, owner of Native Son Farm in Tupelo, said his strawberry crop has fared well this year despite the rainy spring weather that hindered other farmers in the state.
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> “A lot of the rain has been west of us,” Reed said. “We also land-leveled the field last year so that excess water drains off the plants. We cleaned the plants of dead winter blooms, which removed a lot of the disease inoculum.”
> As a result, Reed said this year’s crop looks good.
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> “We’re having an exceptionally good year,” said Reed, who runs the 20-acre, multilocation, community-supported farm with his wife, Amanda. “We’ve been pleased so far. We began harvest on April 6, and we’re about halfway finished. The quality is good, and our yields are up compared to the previous two years.”
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> The Reeds grow 10,000 plants on 1 acre of the Certified Naturally Grown farm, which also produces tomatoes, peppers, carrots, potatoes, cabbage, garlic, and other fruits, vegetables and herbs. To learn more about Native Son Farm, visit http://www.nativesonfarm.com.
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> Eric Stafne, fruit specialist with the MSU Extension Service, said strawberry production represents about 2 percent of specialty crop production in the state, but it has potential to expand for local markets.
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> “Mississippi doesn’t produce a great deal of strawberries, but growers who can invest the time and money the crop requires could likely do well with sales,” Stafne said.
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> Strawberry plants require intensive and diligent management, and growers should begin with healthy plants for the best results. Stafne recommended growers study different cultivars to select the best plants for their situation.
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> “It is very important to select locally adapted cultivars,” he said. “Cultivars differ in sweetness, preservation quality, pest resistance and fruiting period. You have to decide what your priorities are and choose cultivars that meet those goals.”
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> Stafne said choosing two or more cultivars can help meet most of a grower’s priorities and prevent losing an entire crop to pests or disease issues.
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> In addition to intensive management, the crop requires up-front capital. One acre of strawberry plants costs about $7,000.
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> “That’s just for the plants,” said Evans, who is conducting a strawberry trial at the Truck Crops Branch. “That’s more than double every other vegetable crop. But strawberries potentially are a valuable crop for Mississippi’s small and large farms alike.
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> “Strawberries are a good crop for the Farm to School program because they are one of the few crops harvested during the school year. Mississippi growers also have the potential to complement Louisiana’s production,” Evans said.
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> The strawberry trial, funded by a Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce Specialty Crop Block Grant, will help growers predict which cultivars perform well in Mississippi.
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> MDAC marketing specialist Susan Head said there is room in the market for new strawberry producers.
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> “Strawberries are definitely one of the most popular items at farmers markets,” Head said. “They are one of the first spring crops to come in, and they sell out fast. Some customers come just for the strawberries.”
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> During the week of April 26, extra-large strawberries in 8-pound flats were wholesaling for $23.50 to $27.50 at the Atlanta Terminal Market.
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