NC strawberry farms stunted by virus from Nova Scotia

aweigl@newsobserver.comApril 7, 2013 

Farmer David Pope walks the rows of his Knightdale pick-your-own strawberry patch, stopping every six plants or so to point out one that’s stunted.

Pope pulls back a small plant’s green leaves to show that it is finally producing those white blooms that will eventually become strawberries. But this plant should look like its neighbors – fuller, with more leaves and more blooms.

“They are actually growing now, but instead of producing one pound, they might produce 60 percent,” Pope said of the smallest plants among the 32,000 on his two acres, 15 miles east of Raleigh.

Pope is one of several North Carolina farmers who ended up with virus-infected strawberry plants from two nursuries in Nova Scotia. This year’s pair of viruses stunts the plants’ growth and reduces the number of berries they will produce. Strawberry expert Barclay Poling estimates that 12 percent of the state’s 1,600 acres in strawberry production will be affected. Those acres will still produce fruit, although likely not as much as they typically do.

Poling estimates there will be 4 percent fewer strawberries this year, or 27.6 million berries instead of 28.8 million.

The good news is there will still be plenty of strawberries to pick and consumers likely won’t notice any difference at their local pick-your-own farms or at the farmers markets. The strawberries from the virus-infected plants are perfectly safe to eat.

The better news for these farmers is that it could have been a lot worse, according to Poling, an emeritus professor at N.C. State University who advises the state’s strawberry farmers. Florida farmers who got these virus-infected plants saw the plants wither in their warmer climate.

Poling explains that two plant breeders in Great Village, Nova Scotia, unknowingly distributed 18 million virus-infected strawberry plants to farmers in about a dozen states. Federal agriculture officials working with plant breeders in the 1970s had largely rid the industry of viruses. As a result, Poling said, he’d never seen anything like the virus in his 33-year career.

In addition, when strawberry plant viruses come in pairs, farmers really have problems. “Singly by themselves, viruses are not a problem,” Poling said. “But come together and watch out.”

This has been a learning experience for scientists like Poling, especially when comparing Florida’s experience to North Carolina’s. In Florida, farmers put bare-root plants in the ground and expect to harvest berries two months later. In North Carolina, the time from planting strawberries to harvest is seven months. Plus, most N.C. farmers use “plug” plants, or strawberry plants where the roots are surrounded by nutrient-rich soil, a technique developed by N.C. State scientists in the late 1990s.

In Florida, Poling said, these virus-infected plants were under immediate stress in the warm climate and couldn’t rebound. In North Carolina, Poling said, the plants had more time to recover during this year’s unusually cold winter. Also, he said, the “plug” plants seemed better able to handle the stress caused by the viruses.

And based on other researchers’ advice, Poling told farmers to baby the virus-infected plants as much as possible. For farmers like Pope, that has meant providing the plants with more water and extra protection on cold nights.

“We have watered more than normal and frost protected more than normal,” Pope said.

All those efforts seem to be paying off, but the final results won’t be known until later this month, when the strawberries are ready for picking.

“We’re still on pins and needles,” Poling said. “It looks positive that we’re going to pull through up here.”

Weigl: 919-829-4848

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