Apr 7, 2023High turnout marks strawberry conference
Despite torrential rains that forced cancellation of planned field tours, the North American Strawberry Symposium (NASS) was successful, although it was closely followed by deluged California berry fields from “atmospheric river” events.
The North American Strawberry Growers Association (NASGA) was the major sponsor of the conference, which was March 7-10 in San Luis Obispo, California. Growers, researchers, Extension personnel and other industry members from throughout the world. In its 10th year, the event is hosted every four to five years.
Because of forecasted rains preventing access to muddy fields, show organizers canceled the March 10 tours of Santa Maria, California, strawberry growing operations and a tour of the Cal Poly Strawberry Center, less than a half-hour drive from the convention.
The flooding and mudslides will cause growers many headaches, said Gerald Holmes, director of the Cal Poly Strawberry Center.
“It’s as bad as I’ve seen any kind of rain problems since I’ve been here for eight years,” he said. “Growers will have a lot of challenges.”
While wet years come and go, Holmes said it isn’t so much about rain volume, but duration.
“If you get a heavy rain over a 24-hour period, it really becomes bad because the water has to move a lot faster and exit a field much faster, because that’s when the damage occurs,” Holmes said.
Drains can get plugged, causing floods and back-ups. If fields drain quickly, they can return to production, and some fields will survive, Holmes said. He said it will require several weeks of dry weather before growers know the full extent of the damage.
Conference attendance was high, said Kevin Schooley, executive director of the Welland, Ontario, Canada-based NASGA. Up to 375 attendees from more than 17 countries, including South Africa, Australia and Canada, trekked to the central California coastal city to learn the latest on strawberry research and production practices.
“We had extraordinary turnout,” Schooley said. “This show is seeing very strong attendance. It’s close to the best we have ever had for the symposium.”
Despite the inclement weather and tour cancellation, the symposium was an overall success, he said.
“The attendance shows the strong industry involvement and the vibrance in the industry,” Schooley said. “Attendees see a lot of research going on. With COVID easing, people get to see colleagues they haven’t seen in a while. This show brings together people from different countries. The participants enjoy sharing information and networking. Many growers find suppliers here.”
The show featured numerous sessions on technology, as well as pest and disease management, breeding, genetics and genomics, organics and other topics.
In his presentation on California strawberry industry trends and prospects, Holmes discussed robotic harvesting. At one time, as many as five companies were testing harvesting equipment in California. Today, two companies remain in the space, he said.
“The technology wasn’t as far along as it is now,” Holmes said. “Tremendous progress has been made. This is highly proprietary technology that is in the development stages.”
Todd Stacy of Stacy Family Farm in Marietta, Ohio, attended a session on automation in production and harvesting.
“The technological information is very impressive,” he said. “We have some ideas for niche marketing that we can put strawberries in, but labor would be an issue.”
This was the first time the southeast Ohio grower attended the conference.
“We go to many strawberry conferences,” Stacy said. “This show is very interesting. It’s definitely a lot more in-depth here than some others.”
Alex Russomagno, business development and strategy for Apeel Sciences, said she appreciates the global presence at the event.
“Having representation outside of California is really helpful,” she said. “There’s so much data. It’s good to hear, listen and understand the landscape of the industry which is here.”
— Doug Ohlemeier, assistant editor