About a month ago, I went to the Southeast Strawberries Growers Expo. It is hosted by the North Carolina Strawberry Growers Association. This is my fourth year going. I am the only person/grower/farmer from Texas, so everyone just calls me ‘Texas’. I love it. I first started going when the McNitt Brothers (who I buy my plugs from) suggested I go my first year growing strawberries in 2016. I was (and still am) clearly out of my depth when it comes to knowing what I am doing*. They suggested the expo was a great place to learn more. I probably wouldn’t have gone except my dad said it sounded like a good idea.** So I went. IT WAS AMAZING! Seriously, I learned so much, so many vital basic facts and practices for growing strawberries that I still haven’t put them all in to practise here on my farm. On top of being a fountain of knowledge, every single person I met was amazingly wonderful and genuinely welcoming. They didn’t care that I asked simple and obvious questions, they just answered them with their far superior knowledge. Most of the attendees are indeed from the southeast (N. Carolina primary, with a good number from S. Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee. Kentucky and Florida). Also, many have been farming longer than I have been alive. Literally. Almost all grew up in farming families and started growing strawberries to diversify from tobacco.
One of my favorite parts of the expo is the first day. On the first day. we all load up into a bus and go tour 3 or 4 local farms. Actual farms that are doing what I am trying to do. I always see something that I can use or would love to set up on my own farm. The chance to stand in another farmer’s field and ask, “What is this?” “Why do you have this?” “What is this for?” “Why did you set it up this way?” is invaluable. It is also encouraging to hear how they are still learning the best way to farm their own land; to know that even though I am still so new, I am not impossibly behind.
The following two days are your typical breakout sessions, lunch, talks and so on. It would be the most boring parts if you did not farm, and you did not farm strawberries. But as someone who thinks plants are super cool and additionally grows several acres of strawberries, I wish I could go to all the sessions. This year I learned that as the night time temperature goes up the more hours of sunlight strawberries need to produce flowers and fruit. So while they do struggle in the heat of Texas summers, if we had the same heat and longer days we could have strawberries through the summer. So interesting! This year I finally knew enough to sit in the varieties session and actually understand what they are saying about the strengths and weaknesses of each type of strawberry. I have sat in on this session every year and always walked away confused. I never knew that I had been planting my Chandler too early, which is what caused them to grow small berries instead of large.
I have been back every year since. Every year the people are somehow friendlier, and more amazing. For the most part, they know each other and the expo has a feeling of a family reunion where everyone is welcome. Every year, I have brought a family member with me, someone who has been helping with the farm that could also learn a lot. First year was my dad, second my mom, last year my dad, this year everyone started asking me where my mom was. It was fun to say that my little sister was actually coming and then getting to introduce her around and bring more of my family into the expo family. I cannot speak highly enough of everyone at the expo. I can honestly say I would not have made it this far without the Southeast Strawberry Growers Expo.
A short list of things I have learned at the expo include:
1. Cover strawberries to protect from below freezing temperatures
2. The importance of crown planting depth (I wrote a blog about it)
3. The impact of the number of crowns grown in the fall
4. The newest and best sustainable practices
5. How to identify important bacterial and fungal diseases
6. How to safely store tools and equipment so they lasts more than one season
7. Dealing with wildlife eating my plants***
8. How to network
9. When to stress about weeds and when to let them go
10. The best ways to use the internet to advertise the farm
The is just a short list of things that come to my mind quickly to give you a basic idea.
I could go on and on and on about the expo and what I have learned and why it is all so very fascinating. The best thing I can say though is: if you are thinking of marketing or getting into the ‘pick your own strawberries’ business, you should definitely check out this conference. I can’t imagine knowing enough so that I can’t learn something I actually need to know here.
Here is a link to the website of the association that runs the conference every year.
Until next time,
*despite the fact that farmers in my area look to me to answer all their strawberry growing questions.
** I often do things I would not otherwise do if my dad didn’t encourage me. Like farm.
***Did you know that deer have basically no depth perception?