Farms · Food

Virus-infected Strawberry Plants Affecting Crops in Southeastern and Mid-Atlantic U.S.

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Healthy strawberries…scrumptious-good eating!

We spent Sunday afternoon picking strawberries at a delightful family-owned farm on the coast of North Carolina. As we were paying for our basket of delectables, we learned from the owner that it cost $50,000 to plant his five acres and that this season’s crop is the worst he’s seen in 15 years.

The reason for the low yield? He and other farmers in this state purchased plants from Canada that came with a virus. He had to destroy all of the infected plants to keep his healthy plants healthy. And now he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to afford to plant again this fall for harvesting next spring. No compensation is expected from the Canadian farm that sold the plants and he expects no help from the governments of the United States or Canada.

According to the CBC News, reporting on April 11: “Nova Scotia’s multi-million dollar strawberry industry is under attack from a mutant pest. An insect-borne plant illness has been detected in an area just north of Truro. The area is responsible for about 40 per cent of the province’s $17 million industry. The new virus — the result of two known viruses [the Strawberry Mild Yellow Edge Virus and the Strawberry Mottle Virus] combining into a new, mutated form — are spread by the strawberry aphid. The strawberry aphid is a small, soft bodied insect that siphons plant sap. The virus weakens plants to the point where the berries themselves are undesirably small, or the plant fails to produce berries altogether. About 81 hectares [approximately 200 acres] of strawberry fields are being plowed under or having plants cut out of the ground.”

Earlier this month, The Raleigh News and Observer reported that two Canadian breeders [in the Great Valley area of Nova Scotia] unknowingly distributed 18 million of these virus-infected strawberry plants to farmers in about a dozen states. On April 11, The Times-News, out of Burlington, North Carolina, reported that “within four to six weeks of planting last fall, a number of strawberry producers in the Southeastern and Mid-Atlantic regions of the United States began noticing poor growth in their fields.”

Chuck Johnson, an Extension Plant Pathologist, in a February communication to strawberry growers in Virginia, reported that “all of the infected plants were originally sourced from one nursery in the Great Valley area . . . but four different vendors grew out tips from that same nursery.”

Strawberry field
Strawberry field

“Once infected, plants are infected for life, and every cell in an infected plant will eventually contain virus,” Johnson concluded. “There are no ‘silver bullets’ or miracle cures, despite what some may claim. Infected plants can’t be saved, although growers could see some improvement in their appearance and growth between now and harvest. We don’t know why that is, so we don’t know how to promote it. This means that growers with infected plants should focus on preventing spread to healthy plants.”

Barclay Poling, a North Carolina State University Extension strawberry specialist has predicted that the viruses’ impact on North Carolina strawberry plants will be minimal with four percent fewer strawberries grown in the state and only 12 percent of the state’s 1,600 acres used to produce strawberries affected. He projects the state will produce 27.6 million strawberries in 2013 as compared to 28.8 million strawberries last year.

News of the virus reminded me again of how important it is for folks to support their local farmers. We can read statistics in a newspaper and never consider that behind those statistics are real people trying to eke out a living from the soil. Such a critically important and honorable line of work but so difficult. So much depends on so much that is out of one’s control.

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IMG_0801“The first supermarket supposedly appeared on the American landscape in 1946. That is not very long ago. Until then, where was all the food? Dear folks, the food was in homes, gardens, local fields, and forest. It was near kitchens, near tables, near bedsides. It was in the pantry, the cellar, the backyard.” – Joel Salatin, Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World

“Why do farmers farm, given their economic adversities on top of the many frustrations and difficulties normal to farming? And always the answer is: Love. They must do it for love.’ Farmers farm for the love of farming. They love to watch and nurture the growth of plants. They love to live in the presence of animals. They love to work outdoors. They love the weather, maybe even when it is making them miserable. They love to live where they work and to work where they live. If the scale of farming is small enough, they like to work in the company of their children and with the help of their children. They love the measure of independence that farm life can still provide.” – Wendell Berry, Bringing it to the Table: Writings on Farming and Food

More scenes from the farm follow (click on the first photo to see enlargements; all photos by Donna Hailson):

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