Until I moved to Southern California, I really didn’t understand what a just-picked strawberry tasted like. Sure we had a lickity-split window of sweet pick-your-owns back in Massachusetts, but out here it’s another thing entirely. Because of the warm climate and primo growing conditions, local strawberries can be found nearly year-round. They’re plump, super juicy, sweet, and pretty much everything you ever dreamed a strawberry should be. But for much of the country, that same berry only reaches consumers after traveling an average of 3,000 miles. By then, it’s lost flavor and moisture. Increasingly expensive fuel is used to haul it cross-country; and up to 36 percent of what’s shipped can be lost because the fruit is so incredibly perishable.
Walmart is looking to change all that.
The Walmart Foundation has donated $3 million to the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture to expand strawberry production in other parts of the country. (California, Florida and Oregon are currently the top three strawberry-producing states.) The money will be doled out though a national competitive grants program that hopes to expand where strawberries can be grown; decrease energy use and environmental impacts; and reduce food waste.
Heather Friedrich, National Strawberry Sustainability Initiative program manager, says they’ll be awarding grants in the $50,000-$200,000 range, and that although the funding comes from the Walmart Foundation, any production advances can be shared industry-wide.
“The goal is to see more locally grown strawberries in farmers markets, supermarkets, grocery stores, Walmarts, Krogers, wherever. We’re looking for projects that will increase capacity for local growers; that are innovative and cutting edge,” she says.
Conventional strawberry production can depend heavily on pesticides, and the fruit routinely makes the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list. So would expanding production increase chemical use in other parts of the country? The key, says Ken Cook, EWG president, is how “sustainability” is defined here, and whether or not the Walmart Foundation and University of Arkansas take into account pesticide use.
“I think it’s encouraging they’re looking to diversify local crop production and reduce transportation. That’s good, and means more strawberries for the fresh market,” Cook says. “The big question will be pesticides. It will be interesting to see if they take that into consideration.”
In fact, they are.
“One of our goals is to reduce the chemical and energy inputs in strawberry production,” Curt Rom, a horticulture professor at University of Arkansas and part of the center’s leadership team, tells TakePart. “If you produce strawberries out of season, you’ll miss some of the naturally occurring insects and diseases. And we believe there are alternative systems, like greenhouses and high tunnels that will keep pests out.”
He also notes that the use of methyl bromide as a soil fumigant (now outlawed, though there are exclusions) is only needed if farmers continuously plant strawberry crop after strawberry crop.
“If strawberries become part of a complete farm system, along with other crops, we reduce the need for methyl bromide,” he says.
Rom adds that despite our ability to grow 1.3 million metric tons of strawberries, the U.S. is still an importer. Increasing production can help change that. And, should the program bring fruitful results, he says there’s plenty of potential for innovating the production of other crops, including tomatoes, peaches and fresh salad greens.
“Walmart is interested in strawberries, and it’s revolutionary for a private organization to make this kind of investment,” he says. “We hope this will become a model, and that we’ll move into other crops. It’s pretty exciting.”
Related stories on TakePart:
• How Organic Are Your Strawberries?
• Toxic Strawberry Fields Forever?
• Can Walmart Money Clean the Seas?
Clare Leschin-Hoar covers seafood, sustainability and food politics. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, The Wall Street Journal, Grist, Eating Well and many more. @c_leschin | TakePart.com