[Currents headergraphic]

July 19, 1999

UCSC teams with strawberry growers to seek environmentally friendly growing techniques

By Jennifer McNulty

Summer is peak strawberry season, with strawberry shortcake and sweet strawberry jam in the homes of berry lovers everywhere this time of year.

On the Central Coast, this year's strawberry season also marks the beginning of a unique collaboration designed to produce more environmentally friendly ways to grow the luscious fruit.

Nine growers are teaming up with UCSC's Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop alternatives to the high levels of synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers that are commonly used in strawberry production.

The project, dubbed BASIS for Biological Agriculture Systems in Strawberries, is a cooperative study that brings together farmers, university researchers, pest control advisers, and resource conservation specialists.

"Our goal is to develop and make growers aware of the biological alternatives to some conventional growing techniques," said Carolee Bull, a USDA plant pathologist with the Salinas Agricultural Research Service who is the lead researcher on the project. "I'd like the BASIS program to provide growers with a new tool bag full of biological tools to be used in conjunction with their current management tools."

Adding urgency to the project is the scheduled reduction in use--and banning by 2005--of methyl bromide, a soil fumigant used by conventional strawberry growers to kill soil-borne diseases and weeds. Regulatory changes and pest resistance are increasing the threat that growers could soon lose other chemicals with which they fight other strawberry pests, which include the two-spotted spider mite and lygus bugs.

Frank Westerlund, director of research for the California Strawberry Commission, said growers are excited about the new collaborations with UC researchers, which build on decades of partnership with university scientists. "This will expand and extend that work, and it will give the work another dimension," he said, noting that farmers will have greater input during the early stages of project development.

Finding alternatives to methyl bromide is a top priority for the industry, said Westerlund. Alternatives that have been identified so far are not equivalent to the widely used soil fumigant. "We needed (the program) ten years ago, but we're glad to have it now," he said. "We're excited about it."

As difficult as they can be to grow, strawberries remain a lucrative crop, and growers have invested heavily. The crop has doubled in the Central Coast area in the last 15 years to more than 11,000 acres, generating more than $400 million annually in sales.

Strawberry grower Mike Oliver has already found the BASIS project worthwhile. As field operations manager of Watsonville-based California Farm Technology, which he said controls nearly 10 percent of the worldwide market in strawberries, Oliver said such research collaborations are good for business.

"As things change over the next few years, including losing methyl bromide, we're changing, too," said Oliver, a third-generation strawberry producer. "We're getting into organics. We want to move along with the times, and things are going in that direction. This business is very competitive, and I want to be one step ahead of my neighbors."

Oliver has worked closely with UC Davis researchers over the years in the breeding of new strawberry varieties, and he said working with UCSC researchers has been rewarding. "You need to be involved," he said. "It's a great group of people."

The BASIS project comes at a time when grower-researcher collaborations are in high demand, largely because of the benefits they offer all participants, said Sean Swezey, an entomologist and associate director of CASFS who popularized the use of such cooperative research projects while working with growers of apples, strawberries, artichokes, and cotton.

"The BASIS partnership encourages a cooperative learning environment in which we work together to test innovative approaches," said Swezey. "We all learn a lot more, and enrolled farmers are getting excited about the progress we're making."

Swezey is now in a position to encourage even wider use of the collaborative model. As director of the University of California's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP), Swezey oversees systemwide efforts to develop sustainable farming methods and to distribute findings to growers across the state.

"As the university lends research support for the development of biological alternatives to agrochemicals, these collaborations are very powerful tools that I believe will become a model for agricultural research," said Swezey. "BASIS represents a significant first investment on the part of the university to search for alternatives to the chemical-based inputs that are currently used in strawberry production. I see no reason to stop taking research in that direction."

Swezey was named director of the SAREP program in February. An accomplished field researcher, he has developed a reputation as a consensus builder among the major commodity growers on the Central Coast. The SAREP program is currently housed at UC Davis, but it is possible that the office headquarters will move to a Central Coast location following Swezey's first year as director.

Already, Swezey has strengthened ties between the Davis and Santa Cruz campuses, and $600,000 in new funding has come to the Central Coast area for research projects with the strawberry industry on methyl bromide alternatives. In addition to testing and developing innovative techniques, a key element of the BASIS work is the dissemination of ideas that pay off, said Swezey.

"Everyone is motivated to work on alternative strategies, and we are getting high-quality proposals from the top scientists in the UC system," said Swezey. "University researchers and their farmer partners are proposing projects with a specific focus on reduced risk, nonchemical, and organic strategies. The Central Coast is also a major focus area for research on organic production methods, and I expect that numerous growers in the region will be participants in upcoming SAREP-funded studies."

Swezey recently led a tour for legislative staff members of Central Coast farms that have been involved with SAREP projects. The tour, to be followed by a tour this fall for elected officials, reflects Swezey's desire to heighten awareness of--and support for--SAREP activities in the region.

SAREP was allocated $1 million from the state legislature last fall specifically to support research on alternatives to methyl bromide. Assemblymember Helen Thomson, D-Yolo County, who authored the bill that expanded SAREP's grant program for biologically integrated farming systems, said she is "pleased by the large number of project proposals generated by this state funding to develop alternatives to methyl bromide so California agriculture can remain competitive in the world market while improving environmental safeguards."

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