What’s Happening on the Farm: Strawberry research at the Piedmont Research Station

by | Apr 13, 2015

On-the-farm-426x420Farms are places of year-round activity. There is almost always something going on, regardless of the season. Periodically, we highlight one of our research stations and the work taking place on the farm, as well as give a little insight into the world of farming and innovative agricultural research.

There are 18 research stations across the state, operated in partnership between the department, N.C. State University and N.C. A&T State University. The stations are strategically located to account for different soil types, climates, crops and livestock production. Department staff manage the day-to-day operations of the stations and the research field work, while researchers from the universities set up the parameters of the research. This month we are highlighting strawberry research at the Piedmont Research Station in Rowan County. This station sits on 1,044 acres about nine miles west of Salisbury. The station has about 30 employees and supports almost 40 ongoing research projects including research on horticultural crops, field crops, poultry and dairy.

Strawberry lovers know that April is a great month to be in North Carolina. That’s because sometime during the month, farmers markets, pick-your-own farms and roadside stands across the state will be plentiful with red ripe berries. Strawberries account for nearly $30 million in cash receipts annually, and most of the berries grown in North Carolina are consumed here, too — which means that this time of year even the strawberries you get at the grocery store are probably homegrown.

Frost protecting strawberry plants at Piedmont Research Station

Frost-protected strawberry plants at Piedmont Research Station

Researchers at the Piedmont Research Station in Salisbury look forward to April, too. That’s when the strawberries in breeding trials are ready to come off the vine. The station has around 500 test plots of strawberries. This time of year station staff work to keep the dead leaves removed and, if the temperature falls below freezing, frost protect the plants. “We have frost-protected the plants four times this season,” said Brad Graham, horticultural crops manager. “It’s been a very wet season, but I think in about two or three weeks we should have a good bit of berries.” None of the strawberries grown at the station are for public consumption. They are grown for research purposes only. Several of the selections have shown promising results.

“The strawberry varieties that most farmers grow here originate in California or Florida,” said Dr. Gina Fernandez, research professor at N.C. State University and head of the Strawberry Breeding Program. “Right now we have two or three selections at the Piedmont Research Station that are as good or better than what’s on the market. They have a nice flavor, longer harvest time, longer peak season and an overall nice quality.” The next steps for these strawberry selections are tissue culture and micro-propagation and then field testing with farmers. The final step is naming the new variety and releasing to growers. This means that new varieties of strawberries could be available to growers in just a few more growing seasons.

Staff at Piedmont Research Station removing dead leaves from strawberry plots

Staff at Piedmont Research Station remove dead leaves from strawberry plots

In addition to the strawberry breeding trials, several plots of berries are being used in a different type of research. This research could benefit not only the strawberry industry, but other horticultural crops as well. Dr. Eduardo Gutierrez-Rodriguez is studying surface water used to irrigate and frost-protect the plants. This research follows the microbes in the water as they land on plants and in the soil to see their persistence in both. These microbes include E.coli, salmonella and other human pathogens.

“Another part of the research includes a 3-D map of the irrigation pond,” said Gutierrez-Rodriguez. “We are looking at the microbial distribution at different depths and places in the pond.” This research can be used to help growers determine the best place to take a representative sample. “This is a completely new research project,” Gutierrez-Rodriguez added.  “We hope that it can provide answers and support growers.”

This research could help growers get into compliance with the federal Food Safety Modernization Act. Some of these new rules take effect later this year. Check out our latest blog post on FSMA implementation. The new produce safety rules under FSMA require that the water used on crops meet quality standards and be tested for E.coli.

North Carolina is the fourth-largest producers of fresh market strawberries. Someday, the berries you pick at your local strawberry farm could be a variety that was cultivated at Piedmont Research Station.