California's heavy rain highlights benefits of hydroponic strawberries

Over the last few days, California has been experiencing significant rainfall as winter's dry conditions gives way to a very wet spring. This has been causing a few headaches for strawberry growers, as we are in the peak season for many regions in California, the very ones that are seeing the heavy rains now.

"The rain has definitively caused delays in production on strawberry crops," said Dave Akahoshi of Plan Berries. "Growers in Santa Maria, which is typically a strong spring and summer region, are experiencing delays and won't see a rebound to promotable volume until April. Watsonville is looking like it is even further behind. The current rain is compounding the effects from the cold weather a few weeks back. Additionally, growers are dealing with mildew and other moisture related issues so it's a precarious period for strawberry growers right now."

Rain in Santa Maria on March 13; hydroponics are undisturbed. (Video: Dave Akahoshi)

Hydroponically grown strawberry production seeing great results
While many traditional growers are battling the rain, Plan Berries has another set of circumstances. A lot of the strawberries they grow are hydroponic. The cool, wet weather has, in fact, boosted their production under the hoop houses. Akahoshi said it has given them a great opportunity to compare growing methods and offers great encouragement moving forward.

"While the field strawberries are being affected by the rain, we are seeing the opposite for our berries grown under the tunnels," he said. "Production has been up and flavor and sweetness has also been very high. The strawberries seem to respond well to the conditions we are experiencing during the spring. This rain event has been fascinating to see the comparison between the field and the tunnels, and we are extremely pleased with the results. We are in the process of transitioning our entire strawberry operation away from the fields and into hydroponics so this gives us a lot of encouragement."

Getting the message out
One of the challenges for hydroponic growers is getting the message out to customers. Akahoshi said it's important to educate people about the benefits of growing hydroponically. He sees many benefits in that it is beneficial for growers, their workers, the environment and the fruit itself. 

"Getting the word out to customers on the benefits of hydroponically grown strawberries is the key to growth in the industry," Akahoshi observed. "It's much cleaner and more sustainable. We can grow more with fewer resources. It's also better from the labor point of view as workers don't need to bend down as much. So therefore it's also safer and more efficient. At the moment we are growing 40 acres with future expansion phases currently being planned out. Hydroponics is twice as efficient as field grown strawberries, because of the reduced requirement of space and more concentrated fruiting. We believe it's the way of the future of strawberry production."

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