While strawberry season only lasts a few weeks during the summer, strawberry farmers are hard at work year-round. It all starts in the dead of winter for Duane and Kathy Brandner, the owners of Foster Farm near Osseo, Wis. Duane and Kathy travel to a conference each winter to learn more about strawberries and connect with other farmers. Around this time of year, they order new strawberry plants, make plans for the upcoming season and update their customer address book.
Springtime brings new life into the strawberry fields. The soil in each field must be prepared before planting new strawberry plants. A planting machine is pulled behind a tractor with an extra person sitting on the machine. This person will load the plants into the planter to be placed in the soil.
Since strawberries are planted during the first part of May, frost is still a risk at night. To keep the plants from freezing, Duane and Kathy run an irrigation system overnight until the risk of frost is over. The constant water flowing on the plants protects them from damage.
After the plants have been established for a few weeks, some will start to blossom with small white flowers. If the blossoms were to continue to develop into berries, it would take up too much energy needed for the young plant to grow. This is why blossoms are cut during a plant’s first year of life. Duane, Kathy and farm workers go along each row and snip blossoms with scissors. This can be tiring work snipping thousands of blossoms, but it ensures flourishing mature plants down the road.
Once they start to develop runners, which look like vines emerging from the plant, they must be tucked in line so the plants will form a straight row. This also protects the runners from getting damaged when the ground is tilled up between the rows. Young plants that go through this whole process are in their emergence year and won’t start producing strawberries until they are one year old.
The process for mature plants isn’t quite as tedious as emergence plants. They must be protected from frost, watered frequently and sprayed with fungicide. Duane and Kathy are certified in fungicide application. This ensures that the plants won’t develop a fungus that makes the strawberries rot.
Around the last week of June, the strawberries are ready to be picked. Foster Farms offers pre-picked and pick-your-own berries. The fields are lined with small orange flags to show where each person left off picking. Managing a field on picking day requires mental organization and a watchful eye, especially when there are a great deal of pickers. After a few weeks, the strawberries slowly fade away and picking season is over. Shortly after, herbicide is applied and the rows are mowed off. This is called renovation. The plants will grow back again the next season and produce strawberries. Each field can support strawberries for an average of four years.
The rest of the summer consists of tending to the young plants. They need plenty of water, sunlight and fertilizer to survive. Weed control also plays a huge role in summertime farm responsibilities. Duane and Kathy typically hire college and high school age kids to help out with this process.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to teach them the value of hard work and the process of growing strawberries,” said Duane. “Many of the kids love coming back every summer to help out on the farm.”
As the days cool off and fall approaches, a layer of straw is put on the berries to protect them from the harsh winters. This is where strawberries get their name. The straw also acts as weed control in between the rows during the summer.
While the process of growing strawberries takes dedication and hard work, Duane and Kathy think it’s rewarding to see their customers enjoying their product.
“Families make the farm a fun destination to spend time with family all while picking fresh strawberries for everyone to enjoy,” Duane added.
As this strawberry season approaches, keep on the lookout for berries near you to support your local strawberry farmer!