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WHAT'S FRESH BUYING OPPORTUNITIES : Rich Dirt Is Not Cheap : An investment of about $9,000 per acre makes strawberries the most expensive crop to produce.

September 13, 1990|RODNEY BOSCH

Although the fruits of their labor have not been available at the market since mid-July, Ventura County strawberry farmers are not sitting back counting their berry-big bankrolls.

"Soon as the season ends, we're right back out there the next day readying for the next one," said Mike Conroy, manager of Western Berry Farms in Oxnard.

Next to a gracious Mother Nature, it is mainly field preparation that ensures a prosperous next crop.

Having meticulously groomed the fields in rows of elevated beds, strewn with a protective layer of plastic and irrigation hosing, "we just rip it all up and start over again," Conroy said.

All signs of last season's hard work are erased as the fields are disked and revitalized.

"After disking, right away we put in a cover crop such as barley or beans" to replace nutrients, he said.

Topped by manure and humus, the cover crop is allowed to grow for six to eight weeks.

"We bring the disk back in at that point and churn it all under," Conroy said.

Exit beans. Enter the tractor-drawn rip knife.

"The rip knife opens up the ground about 40 inches underneath," he said. "This lets water create a leaching effect to wash any salt down below root level."

And like a baker kneeding dough to obtain proper consistency, the farmers plow and disk some more.

Proper planting requires that the field be free of non-beneficial life forms.

"We must kill everything in the dirt," Conroy said, "things like root diseases, nematodes and weeds." Nematodes are parasitic worms.

A potent fumigant is sprayed onto the field. Behind the machinery that applies the lethal spray is a contraption that rolls out a transparent plastic cover.

If you drive by a field that has been covered, you may notice the land has taken on a wet, reservoir-like appearance. The appearance usually changes after three days, according to Conroy.

The next step is to level off the field and dust with gypsum. This keeps the dirt from clumping, providing better drainage.

Now it's time to recreate those scrupulously groomed elevated beds. The chief implement for this is called a bed-shaper. It creates a 15-inch furrow on each side. Strawberries will go down the middle.

Next comes fertilizer, just below the surface. Then here comes the bed-shaper again, making things beautiful.

The beds are striped lengthwise with irrigating drip hose, which is sunk by machine to an inch below the surface.

Finally, about three months after the process began, the field is planted, by hand, with young strawberry plants from Northern California, 25,000 per acre, one by one.

"After we transplant, the beds--and sprouts--are covered with plastic," Conroy said. "As the plastic is laid, a worker carrying a propane-fueled burner device will follow behind. He will gently touch the hot end of it to the plastic, opening a hole for each transplant."

Exposed to Southern California warmth and protected by a warm blanket of plastic, the little plants undergo a growth spurt.

Harvest time will start at the end of January and last until July.

"Before harvest, you're looking at an investment of about $9,000 per acre," Conroy said. That makes strawberry production the most expensive crop around.

"It's high-yield and high-risk. We worry them up," he said.

The destiny of a strawberry farmer is determined by such variables as labor, pests and the forever unpredictable weather.

"One rain can be $1 million and the next a $1-million loser," Conroy said. "It's a roller coaster ride. You never know which way the worm turned until the end."

When things go right, luscious fruit is sold to Eastern buyers--"that's where the big money is"--and to the freezer market, which includes jams and preserves.

And then? "We start over."

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