Strawberry and caneberries are popular crops that can bring revenue to farms and may improve farm profitability. Protected culture provides potential benefits to berry growers. For red raspberry (Rubus idaeus), tunnel production has been or is being adopted in many regions of the United States (Demchak and Hanson, 2013), including the United States’ major raspberry production regions in California (Tourte et al., 2016). Protected culture is used for strawberry production to a lesser extent in the United States (Demchak and Hanson, 2013).
Strawberries and raspberries are in relatively high demand, with a combined value of production (fresh and processing) of about $3.8 billion in 2017 (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2018d). Strawberries and raspberries were grown on 23,104 acres and 67,467 acres in the United States, respectively, according to 2012 Census of Agriculture data (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2012). In the states represented by the sample for the current study, there are 1656 acres of raspberry and 4071 acres of strawberry (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2012). In a 2011 survey that included 72 growers currently growing berries in high tunnels across the United States, primocane-fruiting varieties of red raspberry was the berry crop grown most commonly, with 49% of current high-tunnel berry growers growing them, followed by day-neutral varieties of strawberries at 40% (K. Demchak, K. Kelley, and E. Hanson, unpublished data).
Per-capita consumption of fresh strawberries increased to an all-time high of 8.34 lb/person in 2017 (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2018a), up 15% since 2010 (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2018c). Per-capita use of raspberries increased from 0.20 lb in 2010 to 0.86 lb in 2016—a 330% increase (U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2018b). Demand for local produce in general has increased recently, improving opportunities for growers to market high-value crops such as berries directly to consumers. However, in highly populated areas of the Northeast and Midwest United States, berry producers within each state still only produce a limited amount of the berries purchased there. Consumers cited a short period of availability as an important factor limiting fresh berry purchases (K. Kelley, K. Demchak, and E. Hanson, unpublished data).
Many growers in populated states have turned to protected culture such as high tunnels (passive solar greenhouses) or low tunnels (rowcover suspended by wire hoops) to maximize yields on limited acreage and/or to increase the length of the growing season (Demchak, 2009; Wells, 1996), frequently using programs such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service High Tunnel Initiative to defray the cost of a tunnel (Foust-Meyer and O’Rourke, 2015). Potential benefits of protected berry culture include season extension, increased yield, and decreased pest pressure. For example, using high tunnels can increase raspberry yield (including a greater percentage of marketable berries) per area, prices received, fruit quality, and berry size, as well as offer an extended production and picking season (Demchak, 2009; Demchak and Hanson, 2013; Hanson et al., 2011; Pritts et al., 2017; Rowley et al., 2010). Tunnels increase plant survival, make production in colder northern climates more viable (Yao and Rosen, 2011), and offer protection from extreme weather in any climate. Tunnels may provide some pest management benefits as well, such as less disease overall, especially for gray mold [Botrytis cinerea (Demchak, 2009; Pritts et al., 2017)]. Growing strawberry in high tunnels brings similar benefits, including protection from extreme weather, season extension, greater yields, sweeter and larger fruit, precocity, and suppressed runner production (Jett, 2006; Kadir et al., 2006).
High tunnels may present challenges and drawbacks as well. Some diseases and insects, especially powdery mildew (Podosphaera aphanis), two-spotted spider mite (Tetranychus urticae), whiteflies (Aleyrodidae), and thrips (Thripidaea), may be exacerbated by tunnels (Demchak, 2009). Ventilation is often needed and, if not automated, may be time-consuming (Pritts et al., 2017; Wells, 1996). Most concerning, the cost of the tunnel may not pay for itself in increased revenue, especially for crops such as June-bearing strawberries, which have a short harvest season (Rowley et al., 2010).
The aforementioned studies largely rely on data derived from university-based research. Previous studies have looked at the experience of farmers using high tunnels for vegetable production and discovered numerous benefits and challenges that emerged from on-farm use, including a steep learning curve, extended-season produce attracting customers, and the importance of management to profitability (Conner et al., 2009, 2011; Waldman et al., 2012).
Because adoption of protected culture for berry culture has occurred relatively recently in the United States, there is little published information that discusses grower usage. This study used interviews of independent growers who have adopted high tunnels or low tunnels to grow strawberry or caneberries as part of diversified production for local markets. The objective of this study was to explore farmers’ experiences using this technology. The interviews provided insight into farmers’ motivations for tunnel adoption as well as the perceived benefits and challenges to production and marketing. Specifically, we address the following research questions: What are farmers’ experiences growing berries in tunnels regarding production, marketing, and management? What are the perceived benefits and challenges? Results may be used to inform adoption decisions as well as future research and outreach efforts.
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