AT FIRST GLANCE THE FARM FIELD is a sea of white caps chopping in the afternoon breeze beneath a summer-blue sky. Actually, it is an acre of strawberries blanketed by floating row cover, the billowing tunnels protecting chubby red fruits.
Strawberries are a specialty at Jessica and Robert Bittner's six-acre farm, Bayside Gardens, where 10,000 strawberry plants grow fat in the clay loam soil of the Jacoby Creek flood plain. Peeling back a flap of white row cover, Jessica plucks a warm red berry lying on a sheet of black plastic.
"The plastic keeps the berries clean and the row cover keeps the birds and the dew off the plants. It warms it up a little and increases production," she explained.
After seven years of cultivating strawberries on the foggy North Coast, the Bittners have chosen the cultivar "Fern" as the best for coastal farming.
"We've tried `Tristar' and `Seashore,' but `Fern` does the best. The berries are easy to pick and less prone to mold," she said.
In early spring berry plants are planted in raised beds three feet wide in rows 200-feet-long. Black plastic is used for mulch and drip irrigation lines installed down the center of each row keeps plants well-watered all summer long. Even with these modern aids, growing strawberries is a lot of work.
"Strawberries require intense hand labor. In the spring season they've been gone through and cleaned twice. You have to weed and mow and then you have to pick (harvest). The berries need to be picked twice a week because they are ripening that fast. The fabric has to be put on each spring and maintained," she said.
Bittner uses no pesticides on the berries and instead relies on a large flock of ducks and chickens to keep slugs, sowbugs and earwigs from ruining the fruit. Handpicking slugs that hide beneath the black plastic mulch is necessary. "The slugs get a certain percentage of the crop, but it's sort of a live and let live situation."
Aphids can be a problem at times also.
"This year we've had a run of aphids, so I went and got a quart of ladybugs and a week later the aphids were gone, including (those on) the honeydew. It just blew me away," she said.
To combat disease, Bittner sprays the crops once in the winter with Bordeaux, a mineral salt.
"In the summer we pick off diseased leaves, pick off bad berries, which is very labor intensive. But it is the only way to go," she said. "Keeping the soil well fed with rock phosphate, oyster shell, sea weed, Triple 16 and calcium nitrate keeps plants healthy and resistant to disease," she said.
Hours of backbreaking picking and grooming of strawberries pays off for the Bittners and their son, Moss, however.
"Economically it's lovely growing something that you can actually sell out on (at weekly farmers' markets). It's really nice and that's basically why we grow them -- because you can make money off of them," she said.
For home gardeners Bittner suggests growing strawberries on raised beds mulched with porous landscape cloth. "The weed fabric is nice and that would be best for strawberry beds. It drains and does not puddle," she said. Bittner also suggests beefing up the soil with plenty of chicken and steer manure, seaweed or seaweed extract.
"Liming the soil is necessary, too, " she added "You do need to lime the soil because strawberries need calcium. Calcium sweetens up the berries. You can taste the difference," she explained.
In her experience, Bittner says backyard strawberry growers are challenged by the crop.
"It takes a lot of learning how to grow strawberries. They are tricky. It's not really a successful backyard crop. We have a lot of people come in and buy berries from us because they have a few plants at home and they are competing with the slugs and they are not fertilizing enough. It is just once in awhile you can get a plant that will fill up a whole basket. More often than not, even with a good yield, you will do a full basket every 10 plants. It's not an easy crop to grow at home," she said.
In August the Bittners plan to open a roadside stand on Old Arcata Road in Bayside. Currently they sell at local farmers' markets.