Elevating the growth of strawberries

Kate Fessler standing in the field.

As Kate Fessler works toward completing a master of science degree in applied plant sciences, she's evaluating a tabletop strawberry system that has been widely adopted in Europe and Canada to determine its feasibility for use in Minnesota. Fessler, who grew up outside Detroit on her family’s small fiber farm, says her father instilled in her a love of plants from an early age, but she didn’t realize that the field of horticulture was a career pathway that existed. She’s now found a home and a community in the Department of Horticultural Science at the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS).

In this Q&A, Fessler talks about how tabletop strawberries could extend the growing season in Minnesota for the much-loved fruit.

What discoveries have led to your current work?

The basis for my current work began in the 1970s in the Netherlands and Belgium, where hydroponic production was developed and continues to be fine-tuned to this day. Tabletop production refers to growing plants in a soilless media mix at table height, which makes maintenance and harvest much easier and more efficient. We use day-neutral strawberry cultivars, which produce berries year round instead of being finished after only one crop in June. This extends the season and allows growers to offer high quality produce while benefiting from higher off-season prices.

For my research project, we’re growing outdoors because most Minnesota farmers don’t have the resources to construct a high-tech greenhouse on their property, but many are interested in new growing technologies and the economic and environmental benefits that they provide. At the University of Minnesota, the strawberries are being grown on the Twin Cities campus in St. Paul. 

Why is your research important? What are the possible real world applications?

This research is important for reasons both economic and environmental. Strawberries are the fifth most popular fruit in the U.S. and are in high demand in Minnesota, but the vast majority of U.S. strawberries are grown in California and Florida. This creates both a vulnerability in our local food supply and negative environmental implications because that fruit has to travel so far to reach our grocery stores. 

The beauty of a system like the tabletops is that it could allow Minnesota farmers to produce high-quality strawberries that use fewer pesticides and virtually no herbicides throughout the season, fulfill demand for locally grown berries, and benefit economically from the higher prices for premium Minnesota produce. There is a learning curve associated with a non-traditional growing technique, but it can be well worth the effort because it is so efficient.

What does sustainable fruit production mean?

Sustainable fruit production ideally encompasses the practice of preserving local flora and fauna, reducing any negative environmental impacts of farming, and supporting farmers in earning a livelihood. Sustainable is not synonymous with any particular farming technique but is rather a philosophy of using the best practices available to support ecosystem functioning and ensuring that the land can continue to sustain future generations.

What excites you about your work?

I love that my work is both applied and community focused. My research is in service to Minnesotans—both the consumers who want to support their local economy and enjoy delicious fruit, and the farmers who want to improve their state’s food system and support their families. 

The day-to-day work itself is fun and engaging, but the best part is how interested people are in what I do. Putting together educational materials for everyone from commercial farms to master gardeners has been deeply satisfying, and I learn from each conversation that those materials spark. Although I’m not from Minnesota originally, I love living here, and it’s been amazing to feel like I contribute positively to the community.