FAYETTEVILLE – At a time when Arkansas-grown summer strawberries are a happy memory, Elena Garcia and her team are just gearing up for their growing season.

FAYETTEVILLE – At a time when Arkansas-grown summer strawberries are a happy memory, Elena Garcia and her team are just gearing up for their growing season.

Garcia, a professor and extension fruit and nut specialist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, is studying the use of high tunnels for winter and early spring strawberry harvest in Arkansas.

Her research, which aims to extend the short, but sweet, strawberry growing season in Arkansas, is one of 18 nationwide to earn a grant as part of the National Strawberry Sustainability Initiative, funded by a $3 million donation from the Walmart Foundation. (See http://arkansasagnews.uark.edu/7726.htm) The initiative is project administered by the Center for Agricultural and Rural Sustainability, part of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

High tunnels “are plastic structures, almost like a greenhouse but not actively heated,” said Garcia. “Here in Fayetteville, we have been able to grow strawberries under our high tunnels during the winter months. We plant them in early September and fruit production starts in late November. Production continues all winter long until early spring.”

Arkansas once ranked among the nation’s top strawberry growers, but California and Florida have taken over the majority of production. Total U.S. strawberry production was valued at $2.4 billion in 2011.

By deflecting wind and trapping warmth, Garcia said the high tunnels provide passive heating that allows for the cultivation of the berries; plants are still covered on days when it is going to be very cold.

What excites her, she says, is that this method produces flavorful strawberries in the winter months that, she says, are superior in flavor to anything coming out of California or Florida during the winter months there. And the high tunnel berries are ending their production about the time Arkansas farmers ramp up to plant outdoor strawberries.

She also thinks there’s a built-in market for farmers who produce winter strawberries.

“For the 2011-12 season, we were able to produce quite a bit, about a third more production than outside production,” said Garcia. “That’s good in the sense it’s more of a market run. In Fayetteville there are some winter markets, so people that are doing this could easily sell their berries for much higher prices than what the supermarkets are selling them for.”

It’s even a method that people can use at home, she said, building arches out of PVC pipe and stretching plastic over them or buying a kit from a supplier.

“There’s a range of structures that people can get, it’s very feasible,” said Garcia.

The Cooperative Extension Service is working to build interest for the high tunnel method among commercial farmers. They’re accustomed to strawberries as a spring crop, she said, so the idea of producing them in the winter takes some convincing, especially that there would be a ready market for them out of season.

Jim Goodson of Damascus is a strawberry farmer and president of the Mid-America Strawberry Growers Association. He’s familiar with the high tunnel concept but says it’s not yet been widely adopted in the region.

“It’s going to catch on, but it’s going to be slow to catch on,” he said. “It is extremely expensive getting established for the high tunnels. You’re looking at as much as $20,000 to $25,000 an acre. It has started to take off in South Carolina, North Carolina, and a bit in central California.”

There were an estimated 80 to 100 acres of strawberries in cultivation in Arkansas this year, with close to 5 million plants producing between 15,000 and 17,000 berries per acre.

As part of the National Strawberry Sustainability Initiative grant recipients will have 12 months to complete their projects. CARS will release the project reports in September 2014.

For more information about horticulture visit www.uaex.edu, or contact your county extension agent.