Marvin Pritts, Horticulture, Cornell University
Most of the strawberries and raspberries consumed in the U.S. are produced thousands of miles away from markets and shipped in refrigerated trucks from California, Florida or Mexico. These regions have the ability to produce berries out-of-season and for long periods of time, so sourcing them from these locations is desirable for supermarkets and produce buyers. However, soils from these distant regions are often low in fertility, requiring as much as 400 lbs/A nitrogen on an annual basis. Large volumes of water are required just to establish plants (up to 500,000 gallons per acre for Florida strawberries). Annual fumigation is used to control soil diseases, and because the weather is warm, winter does not kill many insect pests. A recent study found that strawberries grown and shipped from the west to east coast uses 15X more energy than is contained in the fruit itself.
Our goal is to produce local berries over a longer season to make them more attractive to buyers and local consumers using the fertile soils and abundant water in the Northeast and Midwest, and where land is less expensive so crop rotation can substitute for fumigation. This approach requires fewer inputs than producing and marketing fruit from specific regions on the west coast. Tunnels also offer a mechanism to buffer the increasing fluctuations in rainfall and temperature experienced by growers over the last 20 years as the climate changes.
However, we recognize that the use of plastic for mulch and coverings is unsustainable in the long term. Part of our project is directed at learning about barriers to recycling. We hope that the use of plastic in these systems can be reduced over time and that recycling opportunities can be improved.