FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
THURSDAY, JUNE 30, 2005
||Catherine Stokes, information and communication specialist
NCDA&CS Agronomic Division
McConnell Farms and its 2005 strawberry odyssey
HENDERSONVILLE — Danny McConnell has been on a six-year odyssey. No, he hasn't traveled into space or, for that matter, even very far from his Hendersonville farm. Still, he has been on a quest — a quest for a way to produce his own quality strawberry transplants. Today he is one of only a few N.C. growers who produce certified, disease-free plants.
"McConnell doesn't aim to be the largest producer," said Steve Dillon, a regional agronomist with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, who has worked closely with McConnell. "He's conscientious. For him, it's all about quality and what there is a market for."
It is common for N.C. strawberry growers to purchase their transplants from Canada. Plants grown there are free of the disease problems common in the South. However, Canadian shipments often arrive too late for timely planting in the fall. When this occurs, growers usually have no choice but to purchase locally grown plants. In recent years, the prevalence of diseases such as strawberry anthracnose have made this an unprofitable option.
McConnell, however, has come up with a solution. Each spring, he purchases small, tissue-cultured plants from N.C. State University's micropropagation unit. He increases them in his greenhouse by cutting off the runners or "tips" and rooting them. By the fall, he has sizeable transplants, known as plugs, ready for the field. He is now producing more than enough for himself, and growers drive to his farm from as far away as Tennessee and south Georgia to buy the rest.
"Buyers want my plants," said McConnell. "My plants have never been stressed. They grow off faster. They yield faster."
What makes McConnell's transplants different from those produced by most other N.C. growers is that McConnell buys disease-free stock from N.C. State and takes special precautions to keep it disease-free. An enclosed waiting room on the front of his "tiphouse" provides a place where workers can enter, close the door to the outside and prepare for entry. There, each worker must put on a pair of coveralls over clothing and cover footwear with disposal plastic booties before going into the house where the plants are grown. Even the greenhouse ventilation system meets strict specifications to prevent entry of insects and diseases.
McConnell has worked hard to put all the recommended precautions in place to keep the tiphouse free of pests. He has even come up with a few innovations of his own. However, finding an appropriate planting medium and fertilization strategy was one of his larger hurdles. Standard recommendations for strawberries in North Carolina were all geared toward field production of fruit rather than propagation of vegetative plants. One day, a colleague suggested that McConnell contact Dillon for assistance.
Dillon worked closely with McConnell over the next few years to come up with a good fertilizer regimen. He collected plant tissue samples (leaves and stems) and took them back to the NCDA&CS Agronomic Division for analysis. Even though McConnell was using a seemingly adequate fertilizer solution, the test indicated that plants were critically low in nutrients. Dillon became convinced that the soilless, perlite-vermiculite growing medium was not holding enough water or nutrients.
Two of the nutrients that turned out to be low were calcium and phosphorus. Dillon suspected that adding them both to the same fertilizer solution would cause a problem. They could react with each other, form a precipitate and clog the delivery system.
Today, McConnell grows his plants in potting soil. Since his plants are certified by the N.C. Crop Improvement Association, he had to get their permission to make this change to his production operation. He also has two separate injector systems to avoid mixing different fertilizer solutions together.
With these changes in place, McConnell and Dillon have been able to develop a fertilization plan for strawberry transplants and monitor its effectiveness. It is still a work in progress. McConnell takes tissue samples at two-week intervals and fine-tunes nutrient applications based on the results.
"Before I met Steve [Dillon], I toyed with the idea of hiring an agronomist," said McConnell. "Strawberries are not my only crop. I grow vegetables, specialty crops and apples. I didn't have time to troubleshoot — to take all the samples and then figure out what the results meant."
North Carolinians have access to one of the most comprehensive agronomic testing and advisory services in the nation. Although best known for its free soil testing service, the NCDA&CS Agronomic Division also performs other tests for small fees. The division's laboratories measure nutrients levels within plant tissue, identify plant-parasitic nematodes, analyze the nutrient content of composted materials and animal wastes to be used as fertilizer, and test water and nutrient solutions for nutrient content and other chemical properties relevant to plant growth.
To support these testing services, 13 regional agronomists are available to visit growers; evaluate suspected nutrient problems; give advice on sampling, liming and fertilization; and help identify and manage nematode problems. Visit the Agronomic Division’s Field Services Section online at www.ncagr.com/agronomi/rahome.htm to find contact information for the NCDA&CS regional agronomist assigned to your area.
Agronomist Steve Dillon is available to provide advice on fertilization, nutrient management or nematode problems in Cleveland, Gaston, Henderson, Lincoln, McDowell, Polk, Rutherford and Transylvania counties. He can be reached by phone at (704) 276-1989 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.