New Strawberry Growing System for the Upper Midwest

October 2020

By Nate Dalman, Horticulture Researcher II

Day-neutral strawberry varieties have already greatly extended the strawberry production season in Minnesota that was traditionally from June into July to July through October. However, this extended season has also come with new challenges such as soil borne diseases and insect damage that typically occur later in the growing season. These issues were not as prominent during the traditional strawberry production season. One way we can address these problems is by exploring new production systems with the goal of making production less labor intensive while still getting high quality fruit produced in a more sustainable way.

During the 2020 and 2021 growing seasons, we are exploring a tabletop growing system for day neutral strawberries. Plants are grown in troughs which sit in a gutter that is raised several feet off the ground, about waist height, which is where it gets the nickname “tabletop”. This raised growing system will not have the production challenges of weed control or soil borne diseases. This raised system produces very clean fruit that is harvested quickly and easily. A gutter system also allows for early planting of the strawberry plants as you are not dependent on soils drying out and warming up. Another benefit of this raised gutter system is that it can be installed on marginal land that wouldn’t normally be used for agriculture. The only requirement is that it must be located near a water source that is appropriate for irrigation. This system will allow new producers to get started in strawberry production who wouldn’t normally have the land to produce berries, which will result in more locally grown strawberries.

Now, to get into the specifics of the project. Trials are taking place at West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris, MN and at UM St. Paul Campus. At both of these sites we are testing two different growing substrates, one is organic and one is not. These substrates are primarily composed of peat moss. There are 12 troughs filled with the organic substrate and 12 with the non-organic substrate. Each trough is 3 feet long, 6 inches deep and contains 9 plants.

In addition to trialing two media, we are also using two day-neutral strawberry varieties, Cabrillo and Albion. 

In addition to the UM trial sites, our team consists of two farmer-cooperators trying the system: one site near Garfield, MN and one near Farmington, MN. The site near Garfield only has non-organic substrate and the one near Farmington only has organic substrate. These two farmer-cooperators are trialing 6 varieties: Cabrillo, Albion, Monterey, Mara de Bois, Seascape and Evie II. We are asking these producers to take observational data on which varieties seem to perform well in this new growing system and also spread the word to other producers about this system. 

Since the strawberry plants have a limited root system in the troughs, they must be regularly fertilized to maintain plant health and production. This is done using a fertigation system that adds a small amount of fertilizer each time the plants are irrigated. The injector takes the fertilizer solution and injects it to the irrigation lines. The irrigation system provides water and nutrients directly to the plant’s roots.

Overall, the objectives of this project are to determine:

  • If the raised growing system is feasible in Minnesota
  • If the system can be used by both organic and conventional farmers 
  • How well the different varieties produce in this new system

We have just recently started harvesting berries from this system, and we’re excited to update you with our findings! 

This project is funded by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and made possible through the University of Minnesota West Central Research and Outreach Center and Department of Horticultural Science. Thanks to JR Peters, Inc. for supplying fertilizers, Berger Horticultural Products for supplying the growing media, and Meteor Systems for supplying the materials necessary for building this growing system.

Thanks to project personnel Steve Poppe, Dr. Emily Hoover, Dr. Neil Anderson, Lindsey Miller, Emily Tepe, Dr. Andrew Petran of Twin Cities Berry Co., and Jeff and Jane Way of Ida Valley Farm.