Maintaining soil quality continues to be a key challenge to the sustainability of strawberry plasticulture production systems. This challenge to soil quality is particularly strong in the southeastern United States where warm temperatures can lead to increased pest pressures, including high levels of soilborne pathogens, weeds, and nematodes. These soil-born pest pressures combined with strawberry growers’ limited ability to rotate their crops on small acreage have led to a historic dependency on methyl bromide, which is now being replaced with other synthetic fumigants or nonfumigant based systems (Louws, 2009; Sydorovych et al., 2006). Due to warm climatic conditions, organic matter and soil fertility can be depleted rapidly, particularly in these plasticulture systems where little organic residues are returned to the soil. This combination of factors can rapidly lead to losses in soil quality that threaten the long-term productivity and sustainability of strawberry production systems, which is especially important considering that some of the largest strawberry producing states (Florida and North Carolina) are located in this region [U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 2015].
In this study, we address economic viability and environmental impact of different soil and pest management practices in strawberry production in the southeastern United States. First, three different strawberry production systems that are feasible for the region have been identified. The conventional production system is defined as the current production practices implemented and recommended to growers in the region and is based on annual soil fumigation. The nonfumigated compost system is an intermediate between the conventional and organic systems with the same pesticide use as in the conventional system, but with the addition of compost application, summer cover crop rotations, and beneficial soil inoculants. Finally, the organic production system includes only production practices approved for use under the NOP, as outlined by USDA for growers using the certified organic label (National Organic Program, 2015). It includes organic pesticides, compost application, summer cover crop rotations, and beneficial soil inoculants. Second, we developed strawberry enterprise production budgets to compare production costs and revenues for each system to assess their economic viability. Finally, we used a set of environmental indicators to compare the environmental and human health impacts of each system. The goal of this study was to provide growers with the economic and environmental information that would help them transition to more sustainable soil and pest management production practices.
A number of studies have attempted to compare various aspects of different strawberry productions systems. Reganold et al. (2010) investigated significant differences in fruit and soil quality for conventional and organic strawberry production in California and found that organic fruit had longer shelf life, greater dry matter, higher antioxidant activity and concentrations of ascorbic acid and phenolic compounds, and lower concentrations of phosphorus and potassium. Organically farmed soils had more carbon and nitrogen, greater microbial biomass and activity, and higher concentration of micronutrients. Stevens et al. (2009) compared environmental effects of three cold-climate strawberry production systems: traditional matted row, advanced matted row (nonfumigated raised beds with subsurface drip irrigation and organic mulch), and cold-climate plasticulture. Annual mean runoff volumes were similar for all three production systems but the soil and nitrogen losses and pesticide residues were much greater in the traditional matted row system. The other two systems performed similarly but the plasticulture system also used nonrenewable plastic mulch, which needed to be disposed to a landfill. Khoshnevisan et al. (2013) compiled information on potential environmental impact for open-field and greenhouse strawberry cultivation in Iran using a cradle-to-farm-gate life cycle analysis. They looked at abiotic depletion, acidification, eutrophication, global warming impact, ozone depletion, human, terrestrial and aquatic toxicity, and photochemical oxidation. They found that the greenhouse system produced the largest environmental burden. Murthy (2014) also applied life cycle assessment to compare strawberry production practices in three largest strawberry producing states (California, Florida, and North Carolina) based on each states’ strawberry enterprise budgets. Strawberry production practices varied considerably for different geographical regions in the United States. Strawberry production in California had the lowest environmental impact while production in Florida had the highest environmental impact due to high consumption of agricultural chemicals.
With exception of Sydorovych et al. (2006), who applied partial budget analysis to evaluate various soil treatment alternatives to methyl bromide in production of strawberries in the southeastern United States and Goodhue et al. (2006), who look for economically feasible alternatives to methyl bromide in commercial California strawberry production, we are not aware of any study comparing the impact of strawberry production systems on economic performance and returns in addition to environmental impact. The primary objective of growers is to make their farms financially successful and sustainable. Therefore, they require economic information to make decisions related to adoption of more sustainable production practices (Safley et al., 2004).
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