How to Grow Strawberries for Profit

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The well-filled and organized box of a professional picker.
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Visitors to the Zoeller patch had the option to pick their own or pay a little more for pre-picked berries.
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A small group of customers who opted to pick their own.

Two thousand dollars per acre with only average production,
and double the money for exceptional results . . . that’s
what strawberries can do for you. What better helper could
you find to pay off the mortgage on the old homestead?

Of course–as my neighbor John Zoeller would be quick
to tell you–a modest amount of work (mostly
supervisory) goes into this fine cash crop. But that fact
doesn’t keep the young New Riegel, Ohio grower from looking
forward to his next year of raising and marketing berries
as a sideline.

Back two springs ago–when he found that his regular
40-hour job left him with plenty of evening working time
after the switch to daylight saving–John decided he
could stand more action, and started looking into the
glowing reports he’d heard about the strawberry business.
The big, luscious specimens pictured in nursery catalogs
were as hypnotic as the shining disc swinging from a
mesmerist’s bony fingers, and the growing instructions
almost implied that anyone could produce a bountiful crop
by waving a magic wand.

However, Zoeller–born and bred on a farm–wasn’t
easily fooled. He knew that only weeds are that simple to
raise. To learn the sweet and sour sides of strawberry
culture, he visited an established commercial grower . . .
and was startled to find that the records he examined there
made the catalog claims look almost modest!

Once he knew the idea was sound, John’s next question was,
“Where do I plant my cash crop?” There was no space around
the house he rented, so Zoeller propositioned his
father–a successful nearby farmer with plenty of
acreage–for a sliver from one of his fields.

Wilfred Zoeller enthusiastically endorsed his son’s idea.
He even suggested that more land be devoted to the
undertaking so that John’s two teenage sisters could share
in the project. After talking it over, the family agreed
that two or three acres between the farmhouse and the
highway–where customers could park safely along the
lane leading to the Zoeller house–looked like a good
location. They decided to set out two and a half acres of
strawberries immediately (so they’d have fruit to sell the
following spring).

Since the budding strawberry tycoon hadn’t had his
inspiration until mid-May–six weeks past the crop’s
recommended planting time for John’s area–time was
short. Two decisions had to be made quickly: what variety
of plants to buy, and where to purchase them.

Trying to make such a choice from the lush descriptions and
pictures in a catalog is a real embarrassment of riches.
Fortunately for the beginning grower, the Rayner Bros.
Berry Book gives a very helpful box
score under the heading “Characteristics of Some Strawberry
Varieties”.

The Rayner list rates various types of strawberries and
judges which are best for certain qualities: flavor and
excellence for general home use; goodness for freezing, and
for making preserves; firmness; large size; high yields;
vigor and growth in poor or dry land; suitability for cold
climates, and for the Southern States: resistance to red
stele, verticillium wilt and leaf troubles.

Surecrop was picked as the best variety for nine of these
twelve criteria, and Zoeller was tempted to order nothing
else. However, the neighboring berry producer–who had
grown strawberries for several seasons–was high on a
variety called Midway, and John ended up sending for plants
of both kinds.

Dormant stock–which suffers least shock when
transplanted–may be bought from many reputable
nurseries if the order is placed early enough in the year.
As the season progresses, however, plants awaken by
geographical area . . . early in the South, later in the
North. To be secure, Zoeller sent for his supply from a
grower in the shadow of the Straits of Mackinac Bridge in
northern Michigan.

With the order safely placed, John began to think about
planting. Space recommendations for strawberries vary as
much as politician’s promises, but Zoeller decided on rows
42 inches apart with 22 inches between plants. That worked
out to something like 7,500 sets per acre . . . a grand
total of 18,000 for the planned area.

“Eighteen thousand individual seedlings . . . each of which
must be placed in its own hole!” thought John. “Wow. Even
if I waddle along like a tortoise and set every one of the
plants with one hand while I cover and irrigate it with the
other, it’ll take me all summer just to put them in the
ground.” Zoeller’s tension was finally eased when a
neighbor loaned him the use of a tomato planter for the
job.

While he waited for his stock to arrive, John prepared the
bed carefully to give each of his purchases the best chance
for survival . . . and, because strawberries should go into
the ground as soon as possible after receipt, he made sure
everything was ready when the shipment rolled in.

Then the work of putting out the sets began, and the young
businessman found that the tomato planter–though
extremely helpful–had its shortcomings. The trouble
was that tomatoes aren’t particular about how deep they’re
planted, so the implement that digs the holes doesn’t need
to be accurate about depth . . . and John’s borrowed piece
of equipment wasn’t. Strawberries, however, must be set
with the crown of each plant flush to the surface, and the
only way to maintain this exacting depth was to go slowly
and spend twice as long on the task. (Zoeller learned only
later that the tool’s manufacturer could have sold him a
special attachment to adapt the planter for his crop.)

On top of the planting difficulties, Zoeller’s whole first
year in the strawberry business turned out pretty rocky.
The plants were all set out by June 1, and on June 5 they
were almost drowned in an inch and a half of rain. Then, as
soon as the crusted earth was dry enough, the field was
cultivated twice. On June 11 came another inch of downpour
. . . and from that time until early September you could
have counted the drops of rain on the fingers of one hand.
As the earth grew parched, the Surecrop plants lived up to
their reputation for drought resistance, but Midway fared
badly and half of that variety was lost.

John’s worries about the bad weather were partly offset by
the relief of having little to do for most of the summer.
Other than weeding, the only major project was the 12-hour
job of picking or pinching bloom stems to encourage bigger
and better berries the following year.

The first productive season of the new venture started off
with a beautiful spring. Runners from the parent plants had
filled the intervening spaces with strong, healthy
offspring, and the buzzing bees that held a daily
convention in the field ensured lots of delicious fruit a
few weeks later.

Soon, as June breeze flipped the green capes of the plants
to show flashes of crimson beneath, laborers sent from the
state employment office began to harvest beautiful berries.
(At the rate of $1.00 for every eight quarts picked, these
workers earned above-average daily wages.) John also
reserved a portion of each week during the bearing season
for “Pick Your Own” harvesters, who paid 35¢ per quart
for the fruit they gathered.

It was interesting to compare the picking methods of the
two groups. The professionals–whose object was to
fill their boxes as fast as possible–took all the
ripe berries as they moved down a row and didn’t pile fruit
on top where it might roll off. By contrast, the “Pick Your
Own” customers (99% housewives taking a break from dishes
and dusting) were not only too selective to pluck anything
less than the largest red morsels . . . but heaped each
basket high enough to shame the ancient Egyptian pyramid
builders. The medium and small berries which they passed up
became a problem that John solved only by sending his
family out to glean the rows once the do-it-yourselfers had
picked them over.

The professionals’ harvest was sold at the farm for
55¢ a quart, and case lots were offered stores at the
same price (delivered). Though it may sound a bit
ridiculous at first to set the same price for wholesale and
retail sales, the reasoning was very logical. After all,
local merchants normally depended on large produce houses
for their supplies. and those firms in turn relied on
commercial growers many miles distant. By the time berries
were picked in Illinois or Indiana, shipped to Toledo, and
delivered to stores in Tiffin and Fostoria, the fruit was
firmly packed down and some of it mashed. This forced the
retailer to dump, sort, and refill each box before he could
offer the shipment for sale. In comparison, John’s
fresh-picked produce–which was more attractive to
customers anyway–proved to be a bargain.

Zoeller’s strawberry patch was about as far off the beaten
path as it could be, and he wondered whether the remote
location would hurt his sales. As it turned out, he needn’t
have  worried. He solicited wholesale orders by telephone and
arranged deliveries at the convenience of the merchant.

The Zoeller retail business flourished too, once low-cost
classified newspaper ads and free radio publicity twice a day
had alerted citizens for miles around that the delicious
fresh berries were ready. In fact, John’s experience bore
out a recent report published by the Ohio Agricultural
Research and Development Center, in which Dr. M.E. Cravens
states that location is no longer especially important to
the sale of fresh-from-the-fields farm produce.

Out-of-the-way or not, Zoeller’s business has done pretty
well so far. Although he denies renting an armored truck to
carry his first season’s loot to the bank, John does admit
that the total number of quarts picked from his two and a
half acres was a strong average figure even after the
plants’ poor start. Over the coming months Zoeller expects
to do even better than the normal expectation of 4,000 to
6,000 quarts per acre.

The same plants can’t bear at that rate forever, of course,
and the Ohio grower is managing his plot with an eye to the
future. When John’s first marketing season ended, he tilled
under the east edge of every long north-south row of berry
plants. All runners were then trained toward the west,
where they were contained within 12 inches to form a matted
strip of new, strong plants alongside an equal width of
older stock. By cultivating in this way Zoeller will renew
half the bed each year, and may possibly be able to make
his initial investment a final one.

There’s nothing unique about this young Ohio entrepreneur’s
success with his cash crop. Anyone who wants to make a few
hundred (or a few thousand) back-to-the-land dollars with
minimum effort should be able to do it with strawberries.

If you have your own acreage, of course, you’re all set . .
. and if not, you can lease garden space.
Everywhere–including the edges of
communities–there are small tracts which are nothing
but a summer weed problem to their owners. Check around.
You should be able to find at least one landlord of a
vacant city lot who will be happy to have you relieve him
of its maintenance. Remember, also, that your operation
needn’t be in one piece . . . several nearby plots might
work out well for you. (Your beds won’t bear until the
second year, of course, so make your agreements
accordingly.–MOTHER EARTH NEWS)
And preparation of the
soil is no problem because you can rent power equipment or
hire the owner of a machine to till your ground for a small
fee.

The market for strawberries appears to be insatiable, and
when your plants produce you should find plenty of buyers
willing to pay good prices. If you find sales slowing up at
the end of the short season (usually less than a month), a
discount of a few cents per quart will probably wipe out
any surplus.

If you don’t care to plant in volume, remember that you can
still enjoy your own fresh-picked, tasty fruit . . . from
as little space as the borders of your sidewalk–if
you’re still city-bound–or from that sandy corner of
your homestead that you weren’t really sure what to do
with. Even a window box of everbearing plants might give
you a sauce dish of delicious berries several times a year.
In short, strawberries are a cooperative crop and will
reward you well whether you grow them for pleasure or for a
very tidy profit.