By Matt Reese
It is a sunny spring Wednesday in mid-May. Berry-smudged preschoolers accompanied by a flock of moms and numerous teachers create a buzz in the fields that drowns out the sounds of the pollinators at Stacy Family Farm in Washington County.
Since 1899, the Stacy Family has farmed for generations on the fringe of Marietta, though most of the previous generations never saw field trips like the groups picking berries today. A changing food culture, evolving markets and a society far removed from the farm have made field trips a much more important part of the business than they used to be.
“Strawberries start late and school is out early, so we have between 2,500 and 3,000 visitors maybe in a 3-week period. We bring them in from up to two hours away and they are here with us for around an hour and a half,” said Janet Stacy. “We hit on the second grade core standards and we host mostly preschool through second grade students. We talk about the weather. They get to see an observation bee hive. We show them the strawberry growing process. They get to pick berries when they are in season. Before that they get to do a pizza garden. They learn they can grow a pizza on the farm. It is all about educating the kids and sometimes educating the adults too.”
The Stacys charge a small fee of $5 per person for the tours and, beyond the income, get a tremendous value by hosting them. The education component of the tours is increasingly important. The tours also make for good marketing as the students go home and tell their parents about the farm. Many stay after the tour and pick berries as well. The tours extend the harvest season to days other than the precious weekends in May and June for the u-pick strawberry business as well, said Bill “Farmer” Stacy.
“We are close to 85% or 90% u-pick. We really push the u-pick as being a family experience. We do provide some picked berries for the senior citizens. Our big crop is strawberries. We’ll start with strawberries and we’ll dovetail into blueberries. We have blackberries and we have, for the first time this year, asparagus,” Bill said. “What we are seeing in other big u-pick areas is that it is going away. It is getting to be a more of a family event on the weekends and not as much people coming out to pick during the week to get a bunch to freeze. The school tours really help with getting people out during the week. We are trying to manage the crowds on the weekend and gear up for it.”
The u-pick business presents a number of unique challenges.
“With the u-pick, parking can be a challenge and with the kids especially, eating some berries while they pick is part of the fun of it, but we sometimes have issues with people eating too many. It can be also be a problem getting everything picked,” Bill said. “People are picking smaller amounts. Some people just want to pick a few for dinner. That means dealing with more people and you have to keep the smile up longer.”
All of the products grown on the farm’s 120 acres in two locations — including tomatoes, a corn maze and pumpkins — are sold retail.
“We don’t wholesale anything. We try to keep this local and local — local food and local help,” Bill said. “We have some professional pickers that come out and pick a bunch and resell them to double their money. I don’t even give them a discount and they can make good money reselling them.”
The farm’s six acres of strawberries are grown on black plastic, which is a larger investment than other production methods, but it has numerous advantages.
“The strawberry crop looks very good this year. The plastic helps with disease control. The berries are up on raised beds with high plastic and with all of the rain we’ve had this year, it gets the water away from the fruit to keep the disease away and it improves the quality of the fruit,” Bill said. “If you have a good crop, people remember that for a year. If you have a bad quality crop people will remember it for 3 years. When we got into this there were quite a few matted row growers in Ohio. The plastic was a marketing decision for us because it keeps the berries clean and dry. You can see the difference in the quality of the fruit. The plastic helps with the management too.”
While much of Ohio has been swamped with too much moisture since last fall, parts of southeastern Ohio have had more average precipitation.
“It has been about normal moisture for us this year. It is pretty amazing. We are sitting in this high-pressure system. It is sending everything up to Columbus and north,” Bill said. “In fact, the strawberry harvest is a little early for us this year. We had a few warm stretches and, since they are on the black plastic, that pushes them early.”
The black plastic also helps the strawberry roots retain moisture and nutrients from the drip irrigation and keeps weeds under control. The sandy soils help too.
“We have some upland sand that is outwash from the Ohio River and we have good natural drainage and plenty of water from our irrigation wells,” Bill said. “We monitor the soil moisture but we are usually pumping water to them every other day when the berries are on.”
When the strawberry harvest is over, a cover crop is planted.
”We plant sudangrass after strawberries with a broadcast spreader then scratch it in with a disk. We mow the grass a couple of times so it doesn’t get above waist high and leave clippings for organic matter in the soil,” Bill said. “We mow it one last time in August and moldboard plow it. Then we lay plastic and broadcast the ryegrass in between the rows to suppress weeds and provide a mat for people to walk on. We go through 3 weeks later in September and plant the strawberries. That takes about 2 days. We plant three different varieties to spread out the harvest season a bit.”
Fertilizer application is based on soil tests and applied in multiple ways to meet the needs of the strawberry crop.
“Before we moldboard plow, we apply 19-19-19 with micros based on soil samples. The strawberry ground is always strawberry ground. There is no rotation because it has to be the same for the u-pick,” said Todd Stacy, Bill and Janet’s son. “Cover crops help break up the cycle and always keep something growing there. Then we use greenhouse grade calcium nitrate fertilizer through growing season in the irrigation.”
Disease and insect issues on the strawberries are addressed with sprays as needed.
“We start scouting for disease from first bloom on,” Todd said. “The bloom is the most sensitive so we really have to protect that.”
A preventative fungicides spray program every 7 to 10 days is used up until fruit harvest starts and then spot applications are used as needed.
“We have good friends on the East Coast that are usually a couple of days ahead of us and so we see what is coming. We scout every day and we can see insect issues take over in a matter of days,” Bill said. “The spotted wing drosophila is a fruit fly that came in from China. We just have to manage it and watch the numbers. We test our fruit and make sure we don’t have any larvae in the fruit itself. You immerse the fruit in salt water and the larvae will come out. It is a big deal on the blueberries and blackberries. If we miss them, customers will come back and ask about the creepy crawlies in their blueberries. Strawberries get in and out before the insects get too bad. We have to scout for it and treat accordingly.
“If we have a cold winter the spotted wing drosophila flies die here but they come up from the south. People ask me about spraying all the time and I tell them I would love to farm like my grandfather did without all of these invasive species coming in. All he had was corn earworm and cucumber beetle to worry about.”
Through the generations, the Stacy family has worked hard to overcome the challenges required to provide high quality farm products, and now an increasingly valuable connection to the farm for consumers of all ages. Their efforts allow new generations of strawberry-stained children (and their parents) to find the unique and undeniable appeal of a berry patch on a sunny spring Wednesday.