Larry Robinson isn't a man given to idleness. Sloth isn't his gig. His hands back this up: they are strong, scarred, and weather-beaten. Loam lines his digits' many grooves and wrinkles.
This morning, Robinson is a bit antsy. It's raining and every minute or so he peeks out the window to see if the late-April storm is slackening over his Bradford, Ark., farm. There's work to be done and the berries won't wait. Rain doesn't bother him, he says, and he'd be out picking if lightening weren't occasionally splitting the clouds.
Out back of the farmhouse, down a pretty wooded hillside, is Robinson's acre of strawberries — or, to be more accurate, his nine-year-old granddaughter's strawberries. He is, to put it simply, absolutely smitten with Kelsey. She is in school this morning but will be out to pick this weekend.
“When this is all said and done, Kelsey should have some money to take to the bank. She's one of the most unique little girls in the world, and I get to be with her! She's in the fourth grade, and she's incredible. She sits around reading and drawing all the time.
“Last year I told her, ‘If you really want to work, learn and make some money, I'll help you.’ Meanwhile, Sherry (Wesson, White County, Ark., Extension agent) was putting on these horticulture schools, and Kelsey fell into those. The education she's gotten from this is very valuable. She now knows soil samples and growing procedures, and she reads all the related materials. I thought this would be good for her, and it is. A child needs to learn to work hard and go to church, and everything else will fall into place.”
White County leads Arkansas in horticulture production, says Wesson. But with a broad agricultural base the county is a microcosm of the state. “We have row crops, 26 dairies, and vegetables and berries around here,” says Wesson, a seven-year Extension veteran who works out of Searcy, Ark.
Wesson says Robinson is a selfless man not trying to make a big profit. “It sounds odd, but he really is using this as a learning process for his granddaughter and to share the wealth. He's not trying to make a killing out there, but his strawberry crop is superb. And when you consider that this is his first year growing, all you can say is ‘wow.’”
There's a lot to growing strawberries. When Robinson started his project last year, he was nervous about spending the $5,000 he thought it would take to put the berries out.
“Well, I'd have been much more nervous if I'd known it would actually cost closer to $12,000. But we've done well. So far, I'd estimate we've picked around 2,000 quarts. We may get 12,000 to 15,000 quarts total.”
To grow strawberries, you must prepare a year ahead. The soil must be tilled all summer, soil samples pulled and pH determined. The pH must be manipulated around 6 and fertility must be good. In August you fumigate the soil. Beds are pulled, and irrigation lines laid.
“Two weeks later, you hope you have a lot of friends or a good church, like I do — it takes one hard day to set out an acre of plants,” says Robinson.
A strawberry planter is a strange machine. Four people sit around a large, spiked wheel. As the machine is driven across the field, the spiked wheel knocks a hole in a plastic bed-covering. One of the four people pulls a plant out of a tray and sticks it in the hole.
Then comes much watering and fertilizing. The most difficult part is during the winter when you must guard against frost, says Robinson. Knowing when to cover and uncover the plants is very important.
Three varieties are planted on Kelsey's acre: 4,000 Camarosa plants; 4,000 Chandler plants; and 8,000 Gemstar plants. The Gemstars have a better shelf-life than the others, says Wesson.
So far, four applications of liquid nitrogen have been used on the crop.
“To determine when fertilizing is needed, we run a strawberry petiole test,” says Wesson. “A grower collects the tri-foliate leaves and the petiole, and I send the samples to a diagnostic lab in Fayetteville. The lab determines how much nitrogen is in the sample, and that lets the grower know what is needed,” says Wesson.
Robinson may fertilize once more. However, Wesson is worried about anthracnose — a disease seen in counties around White County. Anthracnose causes spots on leaves and berries. Of more concern, the disease can go to the crown of the plant and kill it. Fertilizing and rain increase the chances of the disease.
All this for one crop
Beatle's tunes notwithstanding, Robinson hardly sees himself growing strawberry fields forever.
“All this trouble is for one strawberry crop per year. That's the downside of this kind of farming. It's like any other aspect of life: you do your best and hope something productive ensues. If it doesn't, you back up and try to figure out what went wrong. This is my first year growing strawberries, and it may be my last. I'm not really sure we want to do this again — at least on this scale. We've got a great crop, but it's a lot of work.”
Robinson's church — Oliphant Church of Christ — plays a key role in this enterprise as well. Oliphant (a community between Bradford and Newport) was once a thriving community in the state. “Even now, it's nothing for us to have 75 folks in our rural church.”
Many of the church members are, like Robinson, workaholics. The church takes on different projects to make money and is picking berries and selling them. “We hope to pay off a bill or two, and let members have some berries at the same time.
“If I did this for a living, I'd look at the labor end of it differently. If it weren't for our church, we'd be in trouble. A huge strawberry operation is 10 acres and you have to have migrant labor to pick. Without pickers, you can't keep up.”
Robinson isn't greedy (he refuses to charge top-dollar for his berries), and his philosophy on money is a throwback. “Money is like fertilizer. If it's in one big pile, it doesn't do much good. But if you spread it around, it'll make things grow. I raise peas and sweet corn, and people will remember how I treated them with the berries.”
Growers and gamblers
Unwilling to make the drive to a casino, Robinson does his gambling on the farm.
“To get into strawberries and make a living at it, you've got to have a lot of money and a gambling instinct. Last year, many growers didn't get their expenses back. This year, the crop is bumper. Strawberries seem to be hit-or-miss. You have to know everything about it and keep your focus constantly.”
It takes around 17,550 strawberry plants to plant an acre, says Wesson. You should get a quart of berries off each plant.
“If you only charge $1 per quart (most growers charge $2-plus), you've made some money, assuming it cost $12,000 or $13,000 to grow them. So the potential profit is much higher than with corn, beans or some other row crop. That's why there's been a lot of interest lately from row-crop farmers in berries and other crops. Farmers are trying to shore up their row-crop operations, and they see berries as a potential way to do that,” says Wesson.