Strawberry Growers Gather In China

International Strawberry Symposium

Note: Debby Wechsler of the North Carolina Strawberry Association was able to attend this year’s International Strawberry Symposium in Beijing, China. The event included meetings, grower visits, and more.

To watch a photo slideshow of this year’s symposium, click here.

The International Strawberry Symposium (ISS), like the Olympics, is held every four years, and the 7th ISS, held Feb. 18-24 in Beijing, China, truly was the Olympics of strawberries. The world’s strawberry community was welcomed by huge banners and billboards, attended by bevies of helpful student volunteers, and treated to the same kind of superb organization, hospitality, and Olympic spectacle. Opening ceremonies featured a lightshow, music, photographic images, dancers, and bus tours. Who would have thought that strawberries and the scientific researchers who work with them could be such celebrities?

According to the Chinese Society for Horticultural Science, China is now the world’s largest strawberry producer in acreage and production, having recently passed the U.S., and China was proud to show off its growing strawberry industry to the rest of the world. As part of hosting this Symposium, the first ever in an Asian nation, China erected a brand new Strawberry Expo Garden. The 166-acre site included a set of elegant white buildings designed to look like giant white strawberries and more than 450,000 square feet of state-of-the-art, multi-span greenhouses and the area’s signature Chinese-style solar greenhouses.

During the symposium, an exhibition featuring more than 300 companies, both Chinese and international, was open to both symposium attendees and the general public, with the media much in evidence; anyone who watched television in Beijing that week surely learned that the symposium was occurring! The Strawberry Gardens and its educational exhibits are planned to remain as an educational and research center for the area.

About 1,000 people from 66 different countries — mostly researchers, but also students, growers, nursery producers, and others in the strawberry industry — came to hear about advances in strawberry research, learn about new varieties, network with each other, see something of China, and advance the symposium’s goal of “Better Strawberry, Happier Life.” Three full days of presentations and hundreds of posters surveyed production and research in different parts of the world or narrowed in on specific topics from genetics, germplasm, and physiology to crop protection, greenhouse production, and postharvest.

All presentations were in English, though simultaneous translation to Chinese was offered. Having struggled to learn even a few words of Chinese, I was both grateful and impressed by the efforts of so many to communicate in a language other than their own. Hallways and meals were abuzz with serendipitous conversations and purposeful networking, as researchers touched base with others in their fields to exchange ideas and explore collaboration: nurserymen talked to breeders, and growers found common ground across continents.

Education At Work

Though many sessions were highly technical and it was impossible to go to them all, here are some of the points of note I gleaned:
• Day-neutrals — called “remontant” or “everbearing” in some areas, but meaning strawberries that don’t just fruit in spring — are getting a lot of attention all over the world. In one presentation, strawberry breeder Doug Shaw of the University of California described research exploring their genetics: the parentage of day neutrals, how many genes are involved, how the genes interact, and whether day neutrality is an absolute characteristic or one that can fall on a continuum of weak to strong. As researchers and producers figure out how they can be worked into strawberry culture in different climates to give longer harvest seasons, whether in the open field as in California or in tunnels and greenhouses, they will become even more broadly used.
• Loss of fumigants is a problem everywhere. Emerging economies like China will lose methyl bromide in the next few years, and the European Union is also canceling chloropicrin and 1, 3-Dichloropropene (1, 3-D, found in Telone) leaving only materials such as Dazomet and metam sodium (Vapam), and even then allowing their use only once every five years. In parts of Europe where much of the production is under tunnels, growers are abandoning the soil entirely for culture in artificial substrates. A lot of research on non-chemical alternatives, such as solarization, anaerobic soil disinfestations, and use of beneficial fungi against their harmful cousins, was reported. Most regions seemed to be sticking with chemical alternatives for now. However, as Dr. John Maas, retired USDA scientist and head of the North American Strawberry Growers Research Foundation, pointed out, as fumigant options decrease, old diseases like fusarium and verticillium, long controlled, are becoming new again. Ever hear of charcoal rot? Likely you will.
• Genomics is hot! The complete mapping of the genome of Fragaria vesca, the woodland strawberry, which was announced in 2010, is now being put to use to discover the actual function of specific genes. Fragaria vesca, a close relative of the cultivated strawberry, is a simpler plant, diploid rather than octaploid. Fragaria vesca is small, so it can be studied in small pots in the lab, but is closely related to many plants of economic importance — not just strawberries, but also apples, peaches, and indeed the whole Rosaceae family. Working in related projects, Dr. Kevin Folta of the University of Florida and Janet Slovin of USDA-ARS in Beltsville, MD, explained how genetic manipulation allows scientists to change a plant so it lacks a specific gene or has too much of it. For example, a gene might control how long stems are, so that plants lacking it are dramatically stunted, and those with too much of it grow like basketball players. If a breeding program is interested in managing plant architecture, that is a good gene to know about!
• Disease forecasting systems for powdery mildew, botrytis, and anthracnose fruit rot (developed in Florida and England) show great promise for
helping growers know when to spray. Also intriguing were reports of research in Austria and China on using beneficial microorganisms to suppress soil-borne pathogens and powdery mildew. And I was much intrigued by a report from an Iranian scientist on using extracts of strawberry leaves and unripe berries to control fruit rots post-harvest.

Production By Region

One day of the conference was devoted to “technical visits” to show off Chinese strawberry production, starting with the Strawberry Expo Gardens. These showcased greenhouse production methods, China’s many wild strawberry species, and cultivars from all over the world. In several smaller greenhouses, we saw different kinds of wild strawberries, all small and scraggly, and quite different from each other. Of the 25 recognized Fragaria species, 13 are found in China, more than any other country. Others showed off pink and red flowered ornamental strawberries. “Pink Panda,” the first of these, was bred in England, but the Chinese have taken up breeding ornamental strawberries with enthusiasm. Some of these also had quite respectably sized fruit; according to the signs, flavor varied.

Chinese farmers have been growing strawberries commercially for about 100 years, but especially in the last 30 years, the industry has really taken off. There is a wide diversity of production methods: in the south, mostly open field production, mostly for processing, and plasticulture; in more northern areas, high tunnels and greenhouse production both in soil and artificial substrates. The small size of Chinese farms is a challenge, especially in open field production areas, and consolidation into larger units for more efficient production involves much negotiation with local authorities, as all land is state owned. In the new China, this strawberry industry seems a swirling and heady mix of individual private enterprise, government institutions, and foreign and jointly held companies coming in to provide plants, chemicals, markets, and technical support whether for production or food safety.

Around Beijing, the favored method is in solar greenhouses for a high-value winter crop. As I understand it, this entire greenhouse strawberry industry has developed since 2001, with considerable state support. Beijing administers an area slightly larger than Connecticut, and urban farming of fruit, vegetables, and nursery crops
has been encouraged. The strawberries find a ready market in the city’s 18
million inhabitants, and pick-your-own is very popular.

Production is clusters of greenhouses, almost like industrial parks. Though Beijing’s climate is quite cold in winter, a solar greenhouse design works well because winter days are invariably sunny (though often smoggy) and the area gets little snow. A brick north wall (two layers of brick with Styrofoam between) provides heat storage. Blankets are rolled down over the greenhouse at night and rolled up during the day (older greenhouses used mats of straw and an earthen or clay back wall). A typical greenhouse is perhaps 100 meters long, 7 to 10 meters wide, and 3.5 to 4.5 meters high, with about 4,000 plants set into high raised beds. One of the most popular varieties is Benihoppe, or “Redface,” a Japanese variety. It’s an aromatic, very sweet, subacid berry, with an almost peach-like flavor, a soft, creamy texture, and very short shelf life. American varieties are also now being brought in; their productivity and shelf life make them attractive, but they are very different from what consumers are used to.

Local Tours

Conference tours included visits to two farms in the Chongping District in northern Beijing, a main center of production for the city. The Tianyi Strawberry Ecological Farm was the first farm using solar greenhouse technology; it now has 1,800 strawberry greenhouses, working with hundreds of individual producers for whom it provides technical support and marketing. It’s an integrated company that has its own nursery production, elegant branded packaging, marketing for both wholesale and PYO, and IQF processing. Some of its production is organic. Nearby Tianrunyuan Strawberry Cooperative has 152 member households and about 300 greenhouses. It provides plants, supplies, training, unified packaging, and help with marketing. Here, demonstrations of different management systems and fumigation methods had been set up for the symposium tour.

Outside the formal tours, I visited with several individual growers, including Mr. and Mrs. Wong in the Pinggu District (a bit east of Chongping). They farm in a complex of 70 greenhouses operated by 30 farmers; the Wongs’ two greenhouses cover about one “mu”, a sixth of an acre and a standard farm allotment. Mr. Wong and his wife live about 3 kilometers away and commute to their farm by bicycle. They told me the two greenhouses are their whole livelihood and they are their only workers. They and the others in this complex have been raising strawberries for six years. Technical assistance and training for this new crop have been provided by the university, and growers have received some government support
in the form of subsidies for building the greenhouses.

Though I saw motorized bed shaper/tillers at the trade show, many growers bed up their soil by shovel. Mr. Wong explained that he uses an inverted flower box and shovels the soil. Plastic is not spread over the beds until after the plants are established, as it is still hot in the fall when they are put in.

For the first few years, growers faced few soil problems, but diseases have begun to build up, and many growers now do some form of soil fumigation. Some, like Mr. Wong, are exploring fumigants like chloropicrin. After that, there might be some spraying for botrytis if humidity gets high or for leaf diseases or mites, or burning sulfur for powdery mildew. They use drip irrigation and apply fertilizers through the drip. Their biggest problem, said Mr. Wong and his neighbor, Mr. Li, was getting high-quality, true-to-type, disease-free plants. In Mr. Li’s greenhouse, we could see many that were too small and unproductive. They shook their heads and said it was fate or fortune that determined what they got, but Mr. Wong had gone to the exhibition at the Symposium in hopes of connecting with a supplier who would be more reliable.

Harvest commences in December and continues into June. I saw strawberries being sold in stores, from cars along roadsides, at open markets, and at farms. It’s hard to do price comparisons juggling yuan/dollars, kilograms/pounds, and the general cost of food, but everyone told me strawberries are considered a pricey item. Pick-your-own (PYO) sold for a higher price than in the store, and Mr. Wong said prices are especially high at the peak of demand, around the Chinese New Year in late January. As in the U.S., PYO strawberries in modern-day China have become a popular destination and a family outing, and people will travel a long way to pick these lovely sweet berries (even though these greenhouse complexes have all the ambiance of self-storage facilities!). Signs at the entrance to the compound advertise PYO, and growers within the group apparently don’t actively compete for the customers; they told me that customers often find a growers whose varieties or quality they especially like, and stick with the same one.

Mr. and Mrs. Wong say they’ll continue to grow strawberries; in the booming Chinese economy and with its huge population seeking consumer goods, the demand for specialty fruits should continue to increase, even if the novelty of PYO levels off, as growers can stay ahead of diseases in their greenhouses. If breeders and nurseries can provide them better-quality plants, Beijing’s strawberry farmers should continue to be successful.

Next Event

North Americans won’t have to go so far for the next symposium; the next one will be held in Quebec City in August 2016. While China will be a tough act to follow, Quebec’s bid for hosting the symposium laid out a strong case for a meeting that should be very exciting in its own way, in a vibrant and interesting city enthusiastically supported by research institutions, civic organizations, and Canadian and provincial governments, and surrounded by a thriving strawberry industry. This is the first time the ISS will be held in North America in more than 30 years. Mark your calendar!

Debby Wechsler wishes to thank the following for helping sponsor her trip to China: American/Western Fruit Grower, the North Carolina Strawberry Association, the North American Strawberry Growers Association, and North Carolina State University.

Leave a Reply