Strawberry fields, a little longer this year

StrawberriesBRINKLEYVILLE — Kathy Barnhill has been growing things all her life, working the soil, planting the seeds and pulling the ripe fruits and vegetables from the earth at harvest time. The work, labor intensive and time consuming, generally provides the same results season after season. This year, for one of her most popular yet shortest-lived crops, Barnhill decided to try a different approach.
As the owner and operator of Plants and Things Greenhouse Nursery, Barnhill has been a mainstay at farmer’s markets across the Valley since going into business in 1994, offering garden fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and other vegetables. But one particular crop, strawberries, has garnered Barnhill the most praise and attention from locals, who return year after year to her nursery on Highway 48 to pick bucketfuls of the sweet red fruit.
While most strawberries are in season for only an eight-week period in the spring, Barnhill has found a method of extending the season throughout the fall. “I’m hoping to have strawberries at Thanksgiving this year,” she said Friday, as she looked over the rows of white plastic containers sprouting green leaves and bright red fruit stretching across a field beside her main greenhouse.
Barnhill said the new growing system, known as hydroponics, was necessitated after local wildlife plundered her field crop, and is a controlled experiment to lengthen the crops’ productivity. Stacked vertically, the plants are housed in containers that allow the fruit to droop down over the sides. The plants are grown in soil known as media, a mixture of pine bark, vermiculite, perlite and other organic substances.  Barnhill explained that, due to the lack of normal dirt soil, the plants are less likely to fall prey to fungus and diseases, lessening the need for chemical treatments. “That’s one of my main goals,” she stated. “To stay clear of chemicals and pesticides.” Of course, added Barnhill, Mother Nature often has her plans. “You never know when a cloud of pests will come through and make the foliage their home. But I really hope I don’t have to spray.”
The plants are fed and watered through a framework of plastic tubing running the length of each row. Using her own organic fertilizer mix pumped from 50-gallon drums, Barnhill said the system offers distinct advantages over field-grown plants. “You can regulate the fertilizer much better. You can control how much water each one gets. Plus, they’re a lot easier to pick, you don’t have to bend down as much.”
Always on the lookout for new growing techniques, Barnhill said she came across the hydroponics approach while surfing the Internet. After some initial research, Barnhill and her husband traveled to Florida, where she took part in a class sponsored by Vertigo, a company that specializes in the growing technique.
The 2,400 plants plus the watering system took about three months to set up, Barnhill said. Once the initial spring harvest is complete, the plants will go dormant through the hottest part of the summer and then resume production in September.
Barnhill said the type of strawberries being used — the Albion and Seascape ever-bearing varieties —haven’t yielded fruit as sweet as the field variety yet, but she’ll continue to adjust her fertilizer and watering mix until she has the combination that produces the type of strawberry she prefers. “Right now they’re a little tarter,” said Barnhill. “But they have a more powerful strawberry flavor. It’s just a matter of experimenting. There’s no single fertilizer you can buy and put out that will do the trick.”
One of the few drawbacks to the system is the initial cost, which requires more investment than normal planting. Barnhill stated that growers attempting the hydroponics method should be in it for the long haul, and should not expect to make their money back the first year.
There are many different hydroponics systems available to suit different growing needs, from the water-based growing methods of large corporate farms, to the more humble methods of home gardeners. “A lot of companies will sell you a whole kit, the pots and tubing and everything.” Barnhill added. “You can go large, small, whatever you want.”
Though working the fields may be her passion, it’s not Barnhill’s only job.  A cardiac nurse at Nash General Hospital who previously spent 10 years at Halifax Regional Medical Center, Barnhill said the daily traumas of the medical profession led directly to her decision to seek a more tranquil side job. “It’s incredibly stressful dealing with death on a regular basis. I needed an outlet. This is my husband’s grandfather’s home place. He gave it to us and told me to do whatever I wanted with it. We started with one greenhouse and it just sparked interest.”
While the work has provided Barnhill the peace of mind she sought, the life, she said, isn’t for everyone. “You have to like this stuff to do it. To me it’s fun and always interesting. I love it.”

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