The small patch of strawberries planted below the athletic field at Monterey Bay Academy appears modest when compared to the acres of strawberry-covered hills surrounding the area, but there are big things happening with the experimental grow.
The rows of berry plants are part of a $500,000 three-year partnership between the state Department of Pesticide Regulation and the California Strawberry Commission to research alternatives to fumigant use for strawberry growers.
"I'm a proud strawberry farmer ... and I'm excited to be a part of this new testing in our fields," said Victor Ramirez, a third-generation grower from Watsonville and vice chair of the Strawberry Commission.
The goal is to find ways to grow strawberries in a more environmentally-friendly way. So the rows of strawberries are planted in rows of peat, coconut coir, compost and mixes of those elements.
"The focus will be finding those promising treatments," said Dan Legard, the research director for the California Strawberry Commission.
Wednesday, strawberry growers and researchers invited reporters to see their experimental field.
Berry growers who use conventional farming methods apply pesticides to their fields to stave off disease and pests. Previously, they applied methyl bromide to the soil, but that pesticide has been phased out. , but the chemical may be more dangerous than its predecessor and is more expensive to use.
The vast majority of farmers fumigate annually, but that's an expense they would eliminate if they could.
So in a small field on the campus on San Andreas Road, Legard and a team of researchers are testing out methods used around the world—greenhouse-grown strawberries in Europe are planted in coconut coir, for example—and underutilized resources closer to home. Planting in almond shells, a component that currently has little use, may be a trial in the near future, Legard said.
Other rows are planted in mustard seeds or rice, and one area is steamed to reduce pathogens in the soil.
The sterile mediums fill raised troughs of soil that are lined with groundcover cloth that keeps the living microbes in the soil separate from the plant roots. A dripline runs down the middle of the trough to provide moisture to the strawberry plants.
But the cost for the alternatives currently hovers around $10,000 an acre, which is two to three times as much as a conventionally-farmed strawberry field. Bringing that price tag down to $4,000-$5,000 could make it reasonable for farmers to employ in their fields, Legard said.
Another hurdle is production. The strawberry plants growing in compost were the runts of the field. Peat moss plants appear to grow the most vigorously, but it is also pricey.
"We have been able, in peat, to get closer to the commercial production," Legard said.
The California Strawberry Commission has been conducting research in Monterey Bay Academy field since the early 1990s, but the new partnership with the Department of Pesticide Regulation will fund three years of research at the field and in five test sites in the Pajaro Valley, Santa Maria and Oxnard. The money comes from a tax charged on pesticide purchases.
"Technology changes and we have to adapt," said Brian Leahy, the director of the DPR. "... The mission of the department is to make sure the growers have tools."
There are more than 15,000 acres of commercial strawberry fields in the Watsonville/Salinas area, nearly half of the 38,373 acres of strawberries found statewide. The statewide fresh production averages 43,000 pounds of berries per acre, though Watsonville farmers said Wednesday they harvest more like 55,000 pounds an acre.