Strawberry growers in Australia produce ≈72,000 t of fruit worth AU$400 million each year (Menzel and Smith, 2011, 2012a; Menzel and Toldi, 2010). The main production centers are located in Queensland, Victoria, and Western Australia, with production in Queensland worth AU$180 million. There are smaller industries in New South Wales, South Australia, and Tasmania. Production in southeastern Queensland is severely affected by rain most seasons. The fruit can be damaged directly by rain, with water soaking, surface etching, and cracking (Herrington et al., 2009, 2013). There can also be an effect on pollination, with distorted berries following short periods of wet weather. Cultivars vary in their sensitivity to direct rain damage; however, nearly all are affected when the fruit are mature. Herrington et al. (2011) showed that 60 mm of rain over 3 d damaged more than 60% of the crop in ‘Rubygem’ and ‘Festival’.
Strawberry production in southeastern Queensland is also affected by fruit disease, which is promoted by direct rain contact or by high humidity. These diseases are mainly grey mold, powdery mildew (Podosphaera aphanis), stem-end rot (Gnomoniopsis fructicola), and black spot (Colletotrichum acutatum). Powdery mildew and stem-end rot affect both the leaves and the developing fruit. These diseases are mainly controlled by the application of fungicides. However, there are several problems with many of the products used by industry. Some of these chemicals are ineffective under wet weather, have limits to the number of applications allowed in a season, or may become ineffective in the long term because of the development of resistance in the different fungi (Washington et al., 1999).
Xiao et al. (2001) examined the effect of plastic tunnels on the incidence of fruit disease in strawberry plants in Florida over 2 years. Two cultivars were grown in tunnels or outdoors with different fungicide schedules. The mean incidence of grey mold was 88% to 94% lower in the plants growing under tunnels than in the plants growing outdoors. This work indicated that losses because of grey mold can be reduced by the use of tunnels.
Most of the research on plastic tunnels in strawberry has been conducted in Europe, the United States, and Canada (Evenhuis and Wanten, 2006; Neri et al., 2012; Önal, 2000; Rowley et al., 2011; Wallace and Webb, 2013). In these environments, the emphasis of the research has been to develop strategies to extend the production season or protect the crop from extreme weather. There have been some studies in California and Florida that are relevant to production in Queensland (Daugovish and Larson, 2009; Kadir et al., 2006; Larson et al., 2009; Salamé-Donoso et al., 2010; Santos, 2013). It is much drier in California than in Queensland. Rain is also less of an issue in Florida, with more concerns about cold weather.
An analysis of the experiments conducted in California and Florida indicates that tunnels generally increased yields and profitability compared with the performance of plants grown outdoors. Greater production was usually associated with earlier cropping, and protection from frosts and rain. There was generally less grey mold in the fruit grown under plastic. Differences in fruit quality in the plants grown under tunnels or outdoors in the United States were usually small, with mixed effects on fruit size, fruit appearance, levels of sugars or soluble solids, and taste.
We report on the effect of plastic high tunnels on the performance of two strawberry cultivars and two breeding lines growing in southeastern Queensland, Australia, over 2 years. The plants were grown under tunnels or outdoors. Information was collected on plant growth, yield, and the losses of fruit due to rain, disease, and other defects. Data were also collected on the levels of soluble solids and total acidity in the fruit, and the shelf life of the crop after harvest. We proposed that marketable yield and fruit quality would be better in the plants growing under the tunnels because the plants would be protected from wet weather. Hail and frosts are not major problems for strawberry growers in southeastern Queensland.
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