Fruit picking can last long into winter now

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Frank DeLoache

Kannapolis Citizen

Even when temperatures dipped this month and no one doubted that winter had finally arrived, people at Rowan County’s Piedmont Research Station were still picking strawberries.

Months after Rowan’s well known strawberry growers, including Patterson and Wetmore farms, were done for the 2006 season, plants were producing the juicy, red fruit at the state agriculture research farm on Sherrills Ford Road.

And you can thank, in part, billionaire David Murdock, Dole Foods and the new N.C. Research Campus rising from the site of the former Cannon Mills Plant 1.

Dole Foods is quietly investing in agriculture experiments in Rowan County and other parts of the state that could yield more jobs and income for North Carolinians.

Last year, Dole Foods provided a $110,000 grant that is supporting research in the commercial growing of strawberries and blueberries.

About a third of the grant paid to build a half-acre of “tunnels” that Dr. Jim Ballington is using to grow strawberries in colder weather.

If successful, Ballington says, growing strawberries in the plastic-covered tunnels could extend N.C. farmers’ growing season for the berries and produce a better, sweet-tasting strawberry that consumers will learn to demand.

The rest of the grant is paying for blueberry research at N.C. State’s 50-acre research station outside Wilmington.

Though the grant came from the N.C. Rural Development Foundation, through N.C. State, the money came from Dole Foods, Ballington said.

And it’s written in a way that the money could be renewed to continue research.

He’s “absolutely” convinced that Murdock’s investment in the N.C. Research Campus and a $54 million salad factory in Gaston County is driving the research grants and Dole’s interest in building up the N.C. agriculture industry.

“This is a new thing,” Ballington said this week. “It’s the first time we’d had any indication that they (Dole officials) were interested” in developing a greater source of strawberries and other fruits in North Carolina.

California is by far the largest producer of strawberries in the United States — it actually produces more than many countries — and Dole Foods controls most of that production, Ballington said.

So the N.C. State professor was concerned that Dole wouldn’t want to compete with its California strawberry producers by building up production here.

But Peter Gilmore, Dole’s vice president for Eastern Seaboard Sourcing and the company’s main contact with N.C. State University, said the market can use more N.C. strawberries without hurting California production.

He’s responsible for seeing that companies and researchers at the N.C. Research Campus have plenty of fresh fruit to work with and farmers who are willing to try out new ideas coming from the Kannapolis complex.

In addition, Dole Foods is in the business of marketing fruit to consumers, Gilmore said.

Right now, North Carolina’s outdoor strawberry growing season is fairly short, Gilmore said.

So Ballington’s tunnel growing experiment at Piedmont Research Station interests Gilmore a lot.

“I want to get over there to see those strawberries,” he said recently.

Even in Monday’s 18-degree weather, “they’ve done just fine,” Joe Hampton, superintendent of the Research Station, said. “The weather hasn’t bothered those plants.”

They were protected by plastic “row covers” close to the plants and the plastic covering the tunnels themselves. Other than that, Ballington is depending on the heat of the sun to protect the plants.

Only now is the Research Station staff ending the growing season to let the plants rest for four to six weeks. They’ll be removing dead blooms and fruit in coming weeks.

Then in early March, before traditional farmers start think about planting strawberries outside, the researchers will start an early spring planting season in the tunnels.

So far, Hampton said, the researchers are much further advanced in the experiment than they had hoped to be by now.

If the tunnels succeed in extending the growing season, N.C. farmers may find the cold-weather berries more profitable.

That’s because the strawberries produced during the traditional outdoor growing season have to compete with cheap, imported berries from Mexico, keeping prices very low, Ballington said.

Strawberries produced in the late fall, early winter and late spring won’t have that foreign competition and will bring a better price, Ballington said. Plus, cold weather makes the berries produce more sugar, so they taste better.

Ballington said Dole has the same interest in increasing blueberry production here.

“Dole is interested in getting into marketing of fresh blueberries,” he said. “They’re in frozen blueberries right now.”

With improved production methods for blueberries, state officials and Dole may have to try to convince more farmers to invest in blueberries.

Currently, growers in southeastern North Carolina have about 5,000 acres in blueberries.

And, of course, Ballington is hoping Dole officials will “see the value in this and invest more in the research.”

For his company’s part, Gilmore said efforts to increase production of fruits and vegetables in North Carolina “is just taking off.”

He said he’s found N.C. farmers open to new ideas and initiatives.

Murdock’s North Carolina initiatives are getting attention from other companies, which want to use some of Murdock’s venture capital to develop their products.

For example, AnCon Bio-Services is a California company that produces and markets “a unique patented plant fertilizer system called Probiotics.”

The primary Probiotic ingredient is a patented bioactive alfalfa/raisin stem-based complex that reduces both fertilizer and pesticide needs. The Probiotic system does not use any animal manure, avoiding the potential pitfall of traditional organic fertilizer methods that can carry pathogenic organisms, like in the recent E. coli contamination of spinach.

Probiotic has been used for a decade in California, primarily to fertilize golf courses, but AnCon wants to expand its uses.

AnCon is seeking venture capital from Murdock’s research center so it can afford to open an office in the N.C. Research Campus to test and market its product, according to a representative of the company.

And if AnCon got money to study its Probiotic fertilizer on crops or vegetables, it might use local greenhouses in Rowan and Cabarrus counties for its tests, the company official said this week.

So far, AnCon officials have not received word on their research grant or loan from Dole Foods or Castle & Cooke, the Murdock subsidiary building the N.C. Research Campus.

An assistant to Clyde Higgs, Castle & Cooke’s development manager for the venture capital fund, said he’s considering similar proposals from many companies.

Contact Frank DeLoache at 704-797-4245 or