Tunnels being installed at Patterson Farm
By Emily Ford
A Rowan County farm and N.C. State University have won a grant to try to lengthen the strawberry growing season so North Carolina farmers can better compete with berries from California and Florida.
Patterson Farm, owned by brothers Doug and Randall Patterson, now has one acre of strawberries under experimental high tunnels, thanks to a $150,000 grant from the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund.
If all goes well, shoppers could see local strawberries on grocery store shelves next winter.
“We are off and running, really running,” said Dr. Jeremy Pattison, the N.C. State strawberry breeder who works at the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis.
The tunnels ó 150-feet-long, greenhouse-like structures with rounded tops covered with polyethylene plastic ó could extend Rowan County’s strawberry season from eight weeks to about six months.
Tunnels went up in August, and Patterson Farm planted half the test plots in September. The other half are being planted now.
For three years, high tunnels at Piedmont Research Station near Salisbury have worked better than expected, nearly tripling the number of berries harvested from one plant.
Now scientists want to see how the strawberry plants and tunnels perform on a working farm. “We want better yield and quality,” Pattison said.
Ultimately, the goal of the N.C. State team is to develop a strawberry plant specifically designed to grow in North Carolina soil, under high tunnels.
“We’ve started breeding for adaptation to tunnel production,” Pattison said. “We have our crosses and we’ll test them and recombine genes in the next round of crosses.” The effort could take a decade.
Researchers are already “ahead of the game,” Pattison said, because Patterson Farm has become a research partner.
The Pattersons are conducting many of the same tests and treatments in their tunnels as scientists at the research station. “We are going to start shaving off research years,” Pattison said.
When researchers can confirm that a plant management technique or other intervention works, or doesn’t work, at two locations on a large scale, they move the science forward more quickly, he said.
“That provides a lot of evidence and adds weight to our determinations,” he said.
Although Patterson Farm is known for pick-your-own strawberries, their tunnel-grown berries will be carefully monitored and picked only by employees.