Farm Practices for Good Stewardship
The Geyers are proud to grow 100% safe, nutritious, and delicious food. They also understand their responsibility for providing safe food and a safe workplace for their employees. Additionally, protecting their land, waterways and the diverse community of pollinators and resident wildlife with which they share their fields is a priority. They use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to grow the healthiest, highest quality fruit with the least possible impact on the environment. IPM is easily understood with three M’s: minimize, monitor, and manage.
What is a pest?
In farming terms, a “pest” can be anything that might reduce the harvest of specific crops. These crop threats can include weather (i.e., late frosts after early warming, excessive rain, humidity or heat), foraging wildlife, fungi, invasive weeds, and insects in various life stages.
Agriberry’s Integrated Pest Management
Whether Farmer Chuck is running sprinklers to keep strawberry blooms from freezing during a cold snap, or applying a fungicide to prevent mold and mildew, the mindset for all at the farm is that preventative plant care–including careful pruning, trellising, and healthy soils–foster healthy plants, and those healthy plants require the minimum amount of intervention.
Here’s a look at Agriberry’s IPM practices using the three M’s:
Cultural IPM refers to how we farm from the very beginning. Some examples of Cultural IPM cover the “basics” required to grow the most robust plants and trees possible, such as full sunlight, healthy soil, adequate water, and selecting plant types and varieties that will tolerate the existing soil and temperature conditions. Modern specialty crop farming embraces the understanding that healthy plants are more likely to withstand pest challenges.
Agriberry Farm uses an underground irrigation system throughout its fields, which ensures that plants receive the even supply of water they need to stay healthy, with the additional benefit of minimizing the potential for wasted water. The underground system also delivers a blend of nutrients that the plants need to thrive. This process of delivering nutrients via the irrigation system is called “fertigation.”
The trellising system and pruning techniques used at the farm allow plants to get the maximum amount of sunlight and airflow, boosting fruit development and reducing the risk of disease. We also use cover crops and green mulching to reduce weed growth and build soil health. To reduce the risk of spreading disease between plants, we sterilize pruning tools before moving to another plant.
Monitoring plant health is built into each field task. Our team is constantly observing plants for signs of pests such as insects, molds, or other pest challenges.
Through these constant checks, thorough communication, and our core value of educating our field staff about specialty crop plant health, we maintain awareness of the pest pressures our plants face throughout the growing season. This helps us to use appropriate crop protectants in a timely and efficient manner according the the best time to do so within the pests’ life cycle.
The application of fungicides, herbicides, and insecticides is an integral part of any IPM program. This requires experience and expertise to know what to use–and at exactly what point in a pest’s life cycle–to address only the targeted pest, or to suppress mold in alignment with actively changing weather conditions. These targeted practices keep beneficial insects safe and increase the effectiveness of the intervention. Because we are fully trained in crop protectant use and we strictly follow the crop protectant guidelines provided by Virginia Tech, the Geyers are confident that the fruit they bring to market is 100% safe and healthy.
When possible, Agriberry also uses biological interventions to help control or discourage pests. For example, reproducing the female sex pheromone of some insect pests can “confuse” the males so they never find a mate, thereby controlling future generations without the use of insecticides. Another example is using “good bugs,” such as ladybugs, to work against “bad bugs,” such as aphids. Research continues into biological interventions for cane berry specialty crop farming, and Agriberry stays up-to-date on these developments.
Where Would We Bee Without Our Pollinators?
We hope we will never have to find out! In addition to our hives of European honeybees, our fields are home to myriad native pollinators, including many other types of native bees, butterflies, moths, birds, bats, beetles, and other insects. One factor that makes Agriberry Farm fields such a haven for pollinators is the diversity of plantings, surrounded by native woodlands.
Staying Committed to IPM
The Geyers firmly believe that being an IPM Grower and making use of ALL the crop protection resources available is the best option for their farm and community. By using IPM, Agriberry is able to control pests with the least amount of synthetic spray, ensuring that the environment does not suffer adverse effects due to overuse. As a consumer, you can feel confident that Agriberry fruit is safe for you and your family to consume due to the strict regulations implemented by the USDA and FDA concerning safe fruit and vegetable production.
Agriberry Strawberries: Magic or IPM Methods?
One of the most frequently asked questions at our markets is, “How long will you have strawberries?” Among farmers, strawberries are considered to be one of the most finicky fruits to grow, partially because they are so sensitive to temperature variations. Among customers, strawberries are considered by many area fans to be their absolute favorite fruit of the year. Our market tables are never busier than when strawberries are in season.
Memorial Day weekend is the traditional peak of the Central Virginia strawberry harvest, but warmer or colder winter and early spring conditions can shift the peak up or back. Our best advice regarding timing your strawberry purchases is that if you see (and smell!) good strawberries at market, you should grab them, because you never know what the coming days or weeks will bring.
Strawberry IPM Methods
As examples of how widely the seasonal norms can vary, in 2023 we brought our first strawberries to market in late March and were still going strong deep into August. An unusual combination of mild winter temperatures, followed by a cooler, dry spring made for a harvest season that broke farm records for duration, quality and quantity. In contrast, during the “Polar Vortex” season of 2015, we did not even begin our harvest until May, and we were finished harvesting in mid-June, thanks to the early stress on the plants, compounded by several days of high heat in early May that stopped the plants from blooming.
That said, Agriberry Farm will bring strawberries to market earlier and keep them coming longer than most other farms in the area. But how does Agriberry maintain such a long strawberry season? Without giving away the farm’s Secret Sauce, here are a few of the Cultural IPM investments made each year to help extend their ability to bring you more of America’s favorite berry each season:
- Early Planting: They plant young strawberry plants in the fall, allowing the plants to develop strong root systems before the spring surge.
- Varietal Diversity: They plant many varieties of strawberries to take advantage of fluctuating harvest conditions, including an “ever bearing” variety, which continues blooming deep into the summer season.
- Row Covers: Unlike many growers, they take the expensive and labor-intensive step of converting the plants in the field to protect them from the deep cold of winter. This keeps the plants healthy and protected. Once the worst of the cold is past, the covers are removed. If unexpectedly cold weather returns, we put them back on again, resulting in hours and hours of labor to keep the plants safe. This protection gives the plants a jump start, however, which enables them to bud, begin blooming, and set fruit ahead of seasonal norms for unprotected field grown plants. Row covers, a valued part of our IPM plan, is also frequently utilized by home gardeners and Organic Farmers alike!
- Research: In consultation with partner farmer Aaron Goode of Chesterfield Berry Farm, Anne and Chuck work closely with the top nurseries to keep tabs on promising new varieties.
- Education: During the off-season, the Geyers attend key conferences and grower’s meetings to keep up-to-date about new growing practices.
These investments made by Agriberry each season, may seem to produce “Strawberry Magic” with our long production seasons of strawberries, but it is not magic at all: instead, it is a combination of cultural IPM methods that allow Agriberry to have the longest season of strawberries compared to other local growers. We hope you enjoy the fruits of their labor!
Safety for Our Farm Workers and Consumers
Agriberry is committed to ensuring that our fruit is safe and healthy for consumers, and we do so by following all guidelines from the USDA, FDA, and the Virginia Tech Department of Agriculture and Life Sciences. But how do we ensure that our workers are safe in the fields before, during, and after spray?
Just like there are guidelines for spraying specialty produce, there are guidelines that ensure the safety of field workers where spray is being implemented. These guidelines include Preharvest Intervals (PHI) as well as guidelines for returning to the treated area, which are known as Restricted-Entry Intervals (REI).
Pre Harvest Interval (PHI) is the wait time between a crop protectant application and when a crop can be harvested. The PHI varies depending on the type of crop and the specific spray in use. During this interval, the crop protectant begins to break down so that only a safe level of crop protectant is left on the produce when harvested. Agriberry follows PHI guidelines closely to ensure that all of our fruit is safe and healthy for consumers.
Restricted-Entry Intervals (REI): this is the time following a crop protectant application when entry into the treated area is restricted. There are strict guidelines on who can and cannot enter the treated field ensures that workers are protected.
Filling the GAP
In 2016, Agriberry Farm was awarded full accreditation in accordance with the USDA’s Good Agricultural Practices program, developed to help ensure that food produced on U.S. farms is safely handled and traceable from the farm of origin all the way to the consumer. The farm gets re-certified each year in the fall.
As part of continuing efforts to improve farm practices and to ensure adherence to the highest possible standards for food safety, please check with your market staff to learn more about what containers can be safely reused by the farm.
Is Agriberry Farm "Organic?"
Because Agriberry uses IPM (including the use of conventional sprays for pest management), we are not certified organic. Though using IPM means a farm cannot be considered organic, IPM does utilize many methods that overlap with organic practices, such as using biological and cultural farming practices to discourage pests.
What Does Organic Certification Actually Mean?
There is a lot of information and misinformation about what “certified organic” actually means, and the certification is based on standards and inspections established by the USDA. Many consumers incorrectly believe that “organic” means the same as “no spray.” Spraying is permitted on certified organic farms, but is limited to an approved list of products. Agriberry Farm uses many of the same cultural and biological methods of pest prevention as organic farms.
Thank you for being curious and concerned about the food that you enjoy! We are passionate about educating employees and consumers alike here at Agriberry and love the chance to discuss the complexities of modern day farming.