Issue 12: Running Strawberries

Issue 12
September/October – 1993
Story Title: Running Strawberries
Author: Roger Fox

Behind every good strawberry farming operation is good quality runner stock, grown under disease conditions. The Strawberry Runner Scheme operates to guarantee this, and involves a high level of cooperation between runner growers and Departments of Agriculture.

For most plant growing enterprises, establishing a crop begins with buying good quality seed. In strawberry production however, there’s another cog in the wheel – the runner grower. In strawberry farming, certified virus-free’ strawberry runner stock is the essential building block of a successful operation.

The susceptibility of the strawberry to viral diseases is one of its well known characteristics, and can easily lead to the failure of a crop. For this reason, the Strawberry Runner Scheme, as it is known, was set up in Australia during the 1960s to guarantee quality mother stock to growers. Its main objective is to produce quality strawberry runners which meet certain minimum standards, prime among them being freedom from pests, diseases and parasitic nematodes. The scheme also sets standards for length and number of leaves and roots, diameter of the crown and weight of the plant.

Peter Speet has been growing runners for the strawberry industry for 25 years and is currently one of only two certified growers in NSW. At his farm at Oakville outside Sydney, he produces around 500,000 to 600,000 strawberry runners per year, using an area of 12.5 hectares (31 acres). During his career, Peter has seen the industry really get off the ground.

“The only thing that got strawberries going was the certification program,” he says. “Previous to that, in the 1950s, all they could grow was a strawberry the size of your little finger. The certification program has really created a strawberry industry for Australia.” Overseen by the Department of Agriculture, Peter’s production system has two facets. At the heart of it is the “foundation stock”, which are strawberry plants grown in complete isolation from any other strawberries. These plants produce runners which are then harvested and grown on to become the “mother stock”, which is the product sold to farmers. The time lag involved between initial planting of the foundation stock and the selling of the runners, can be a problem when selecting which varieties to grow.

“Everything takes a long time with strawberries,” Peter comments. “We have to plan for what people want to grow two years away.” At present, Peter’s foundation stock consists of six varieties, the three main ones being Torrey, Red Gauntlet and Selector. The runners are dug in July, frozen and then re-planted in October as mother stock. They are ready to be sold in around six months. After July, another crop of foundation stock is planted, using “virus index plants” from Knoxfield Research Station in Victoria. These are planted in an area of new soil, since it’s essential to keep moving the foundation stock paddock as part of the disease prevention program.

. . . all the flowers must be removed so that fruit forms . . .

To prevent weed growth, the ground is fumigated before all plantings with methyl bromide. This of course isn’t foolproof, but any weeds that do emerge later are removed by hand, a rather laborious chore. The only other chemical inputs are occasional sprays for leaf blight. During growth, all flowers must be removed from the strawberry plants so that no fruit forms, and this too is done manually.

After an area comes out of runner production, it is not used again for two or three years. During that time, another crop is grown, fed off to a small herd of cattle, and the remains ploughed in to help restore some organic matter to the soil. Peter believes strongly in constantly trying to rejuvenate the soil, to counter the necessary use of fumigants. Before replanting, he adds large quantities of poultry manure, as well as some mushroom compost and anything else available.

Around Peter’s land, large belts of native trees stand in contrast to the cleared cultivation paddocks. These provide good wind protection, but also fit in with Peter’s broader view of agriculture and its relationship with the environment.

“We try not to wreck the trees, because really, none of us are here for a long time,” Peter says philosophically. “If you go and massacre everything, you’ll have a desert.”

The strawberry runners are sold in boxes of 500 plants and farmers buy anything from 10,000 to 40,000 plants. In the packing shed field plants are trimmed of leaves, graded and packed by a number of casual staff who are employed during harvest periods. During this process, a harvesting machine works in tandem with the packers, only digging as many plants as can be processed within a short period of time. This ensures the runners are packed in peak condition.

Runner growing obviously depends on a close level of co-operation with the state Department of Agriculture. As part of the scheme, department experts visit Peter’s operation regularly, and before an area is sown, they take soil samples to check for any problems. During the grading of foundation stock plants, officers are on hand constantly and every plant is inspected by them. Peter offers his clients the choice of fresh or frozen strawberry runners and finds that most farmers choose the former.

However, because the frozen runners are the late harvested ones, they are more mature plants and in many ways superior. According to Peter, the frozen runners are by far the best option for hydroponic growing, because of this extra maturity.

By keeping frozen runners, Peter is able to offer plants for sale throughout the year. . .

The cool rooms are run at -1° to -2°C, and the frozen runners can be kept for almost a year. The only treatment they receive is a dusting with some anti-fungal powder before freezing. As a precaution, there are two cooling units, in case one should break down at a critical point. The room is large enough to accommodate bins of freshly harvested runners, if a heatwave strikes during grading and packing.

By keeping frozen runners, Peter is able to offer plants for sale throughout the year , including sales to plant nurseries as single potted plants. This servicing of the home garden market, while a small part of the operation, utilises extra runners and diversifies income.

The strawberry growing industry in Australia is not, according to Peter, a large one by world standards. We import half our strawberries, including fruit used in conserves and manufactured foods, and interestingly Mexico is a major source of supply. Whereas Peter produced one million runners last year, he quotes a nursery in the US which produces 20 million per year. Nor do we match countries like New Zealand, Poland or Spain in terms of strawberry production.

Within Australia though, the strawberry runner growing industry is a curiously political one. While there are only two certified growers in NSW, there are eleven in Victoria, all belonging to a Runner Growers’ Co-operative, which has considerable clout. Since 1987 the Victorian runner growers have secured exclusive rights to a number of new strawberry varieties developed by the University of California, many of which hold great promise for cultivation under Australian conditions. This means effectively, that these varieties can only be grown as runners in Victoria and clearly puts runner growers in NSW and other states at a significant competitive disadvantage.

Quite recently however, the situation has altered dramatically, with the establishment of a company called Agricultural Licensing Australia (ALA). ALA has negotiated a master license in Australia for plant varieties developed by the University of California, including strawberries.

According to the company’s managing director, Robert Stitt, the new arrangements mean that all states will now have equal access to any new varieties of strawberry that are developed. Prospective runner growers who apply to the ALA will be screened for their suitability – some varieties for instance will not be suitable for growing in particular climates. But the ALA will have no interest in state issues or rivalries; they will deal with Australia as a whole.

The University of California is at the cutting edge of developments in new crop varieties. . .

The potential for decreased demand for older strawberry varieties as new ones become available, may even, according to Robert, lead to a situation where individual runner growers cultivate only one variety to service a specific market.

The University of California leads the way in the development of new horticultural crop varieties. Around the world, over 80% of commercial strawberry varieties were developed by the university, who register around 300 patents per year in a variety of areas. As has been the experience with many ornamental plants, Californian species and cultivars usually make a successful transition to Australia because of the climatic similarities. It is not unusual therefore, to find strawberry growers in all parts of Australia looking keenly towards developments in the US.

There is very little export encouragement for growers of strawberry runners in Australia. Peter quotes from his own experience of a few years ago when he serviced an export order from the Seychelles. The costs were enormous, notably the cost associated with Department of Agriculture export inspection, and ultimately the project was not economically viable.

Future prospects, however, look promising with the Australian market set to open up considerably. An enduring reality is the need for runner growers – the strawberry industry would not be able to exist without them.