Farming with strawberries can be an expensive affair, as set-up costs for this type of venture are notoriously high. However, the health benefits of the fruit are innumerable, making it highly popular with consumers. The fruit is a high-value crop, and spells out a potentially lucrative investment for the farmer who gets it right.
The first strawberry to ever touch down on South African soil did so in 1656. Over 350 years later, in 2019, the country produced close to 10 000 tonnes of the fruit annually. The pattern of production does not seem to be slowing down, and the rate at which the fruit is being produced has almost doubled since 2010.
South Africa’s strawberry hubs are in the Free State and the Western Cape, and between January and October 2020 the country exported around R120.9 million in strawberries. The majority of the exported fruit went to the United Arab Emirates, and there was also significant demand from neighbouring countries Namibia and Botswana.
Locally, it is evident that South Africans love strawberries. In 2020, from July to September, strawberry sales increased locally. Per tonne, the fruit sold for R31 964.57. This increased to R54 155.72 in October 2020 when less of the fruit became available.
Consider your climate
Sandra Van Eeden, horticulturalist and lecturer at the Elsenburg Agricultural Training Institute, says aspiring farmers need to start with the basics.
“Firstly, you must choose a suitable location, [consider] the climate, the weather patterns, hail or wind, or the prevalence of heatwaves. Just as important is the water [supply]. There must be a reliable supply of good quality water right through the growing season whenever you need it, because without that, the farming will just not work.”
Van Eeden explains that strawberries prefer temperate conditions. The climate in which you are growing it cannot be too hot or too cold, and strawberries do not do well with frost.
“They usually start flowering in the spring – September, early October – and the harvest can take place November, December. Very high temperatures or heatwave would dramatically shorten your lifespan of the fruit and it would be detrimental to the quality.”
Good soil, good harvest
Of course, like with any crop, strawberries require healthy soil to grow. How you plant your strawberries is also integral to a successful harvest. Strawberries like well-drained soil, says Van Eeden, one that is slightly acidic and has a good organic matter component.
“Strawberries are also usually planted on ridges, little mounds that run in rows. It’s very, very good to cover that little mound with a plastic sheet with holes punched in that would suppress the weeds that grow around the plants, because you can’t spray close to your strawberry plant. And it will also keep all the little organisms living in the soil away, like little beetles and worms.”
Van Eeden also says that strawberries should only be planted in the same field for up to five years or so. She encourages strawberry farmers to allow the soil to rest for about three to four years before planting there again.
“When you plant it in your first year, you only harvest in the second year; third and fourth, if your plants are in good condition and you’ve taken good care of them regarding nutrients and water. And then in the fifth year, you would rotate your crop and plant strawberries in a different location and then only plant in the first location about after about three or four years. So it’s always a good idea to rotate your crops.”
Infrastructure and labour
When it comes to strawberry farming, the right infrastructure is incredibly important. Strawberry farmers need to be as close to their market as possible, as strawberries do not last very long post-harvest, advises Van Eeden.
“You have to get it from the field to the retailer to the consumer as soon as possible. So, [consider the] roads, electricity, cold rooms and transport to get your product to the market. All of that, I would say, are some of the first things you must consider when you want to begin with strawberry farming.”
Strawberries also require a lot of labour, says Van Eeden, especially during harvest season. The fruit cannot be left in the field during harvest time and should be put into the market as soon as possible.
”Strawberries are extremely delicate and need to be handled carefully. They must be picked by hand and moved to your packing facility and your cold rooms as soon as possible. So labour needs to be sufficient during harvest time because you can’t leave it in the field if it’s ready to be harvested. It needs to get to the retailer and the consumer as soon as possible after harvest.”
Other things to consider
In South Africa, farmers have the option of trying multiple cultivars. In this production guide by the department of agriculture, land reform and rural development, the most popular cultivars are Selekta and Chandler. However, the cultivar should be determined by your climate and soil type.
Van Eeden recommends that aspiring strawberry farmers get their soil tested first, so they are familiar with its condition and what is needed for the fruits to flourish.
Strawberries can also be grown undercover, as well as in plastic containers. Aspiring strawberry farmers need to assess their environment to determine planting methods, fertilisation, pest control and disease control.
Van Eeden encourages the aspiring strawberry farmer to find out as much as they can about their location and the cultivar they want to grow.
“You must choose your supplier that you buy your plants from very carefully. You must know that [your plant] is of the correct cultivar, and it must be disease free and strong. And then I would advise you to join a study group, go to workshops, join the association for strawberries in your area. And always keep learning and always respect the environment.”
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