University of Arkansas Agri Division Inventions Generate Revenue

by Marty Cook  on Monday, Nov. 25, 2013 12:00 am  

Rom said nearly all strawberries produced in the United States — 98 percent — are grown in California and Florida, and U.S. production accounts for about one-fifth of the world’s supply. But the demand for strawberries is outstripping even California’s ability to keep up, and that has renewed the hopes of those who want to see strawberries reintroduced in states where they were previously an important crop.

Growing them throughout the United States would also help sellers get the fruit to market quicker, cheaper and more efficiently. Rom said more than a quarter of harvested strawberries can be lost to spoilage before they reach store shelves, no small matter in a multibillion-dollar industry.

“The pie is getting bigger,” Rom said. “The market demand is growing 7 percent a year.”

To be effective, Rom said, Arkansas growers must be able to extend the strawberry harvest. Previously, there was a small window of harvest for Arkansas strawberries, usually the month of May, because strawberries can’t survive the cold winter nor the heat of Arkansas summers.

The advancements in genetics have brought multi-bloom strawberries to Arkansas (and other states) and high tunnels are hoped to provide suitable growing conditions in wintertime.

“We have to be able to grow strawberries for four months to make ourselves economically competitive,” Rom said. “We have the know-how to adapt the technology to our state and other states.”

The tunnels work as a type of greenhouse, Garcia and Rom said, providing heat produced by the sun’s rays hitting the polyethylene covering. Temperatures must be maintained at between 55 and 85 degrees, and the high tunnels can do that even when the temperature outside dives into the 20s.

The plants that Garcia is studying are three weeks from producing fruit — “Things don’t move fast in the plant business,” Rom joked. Rom and Garcia know that the tunnel plants must be able to produce good-tasting fruit through multiple pickings, about once a week from December to April.

If an indoor harvest can produce 20,000 to 30,000 pounds per acre, then it becomes economically viable, Rom said. A high tunnel setup varies in price, depending on the scope, but Rom said it would generally cost up to $18,000 an acre to start operations.

At $1 a pound, 20,000 pounds of harvest would produce a small profit immediately. With increasing strawberry demand, prices should remain stable and perhaps even go up in off markets during winter, Rom said, allowing for additional profit opportunities.

“Strawberries are a very, very, very capital-intensive operation,” Rom said. “There is a thin profit margin. This is not for the timid or the lazy.”




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