Strawberries are serious business in Oklahoma, especially in the town of Stilwell, which was dubbed the "Strawberry Capital of the World" in 1949. Thousands of acres were once grown here, and strawberries were reportedly even shipped overseas to help feed soldiers in past wars. Today less than 1% of those acres remain. However, nestled next to Twist Mountain in the Piney area of Adair County, where the Trail of Tears ended, a family of seven is working hard to modernize strawberry production and marketing.
The Talbert family moved to Stilwell in 2009 after husband and father, Scott, finished law school. "We were free to go anywhere, and were simply looking for a place in the country to rear our boys. Honestly, in moving from Virginia Beach, strawberries really weren't even on my radar," Talbert said. Even with an annual Stilwell Strawberry Festival, ongoing since 1948, Talbert notes it wasn't until neighbor Earl Walker said he should raise strawberries that he gave it any thought. Talbert adds, "The one thing I know is that I don't know what I don't know, and so I made a mental post-it note to look into it at some point - just in case he was on to something." Several years later, Talbert finally started investigating.
"My local OSU Extension Agent, Marty Green, referred me to Berni Kurz with the University of Arkansas Extension office." Berni Kurz referred him to three people that changed everything. One was Jim Goodson, of Goodson Farm & Nursery, where Talbert would eventually get his plants. Another was David Dickey, of Dickey Farms in Tontitown, AR. David ended up pulling Talbert's raised beds, allowing him to leverage the luxury of the plasticulture growing method used by all modern commercial strawberry producers. Talbert observed that growers from Arkansas to the East Coast were embracing this and other highly sophisticated methods, such as foliar sampling for petiole nutrient uptake analysis, and saw an opportunity to appropriate those advances to modernize production techniques in his home town.
"When I visited farms in Arkansas, I saw the most beautiful berry patches I'd ever seen." Talbert witnessed plants that were lush and vigorous, clearly thriving on the plastic-covered raised beds. There was plenty of easy access to the berries owing to the "row middles," which serve as walkways. "I called my mom, who used to sit me in an old-school matted row berry patch as a toddler while she picked, and she told me these days it's as if they're on a 'table.' I knew we were seeing the same thing," Talbert explains. Back in Oklahoma, despite the larger-than-life "Stilwell Strawberries" reputation, nobody in the entire county was doing modern plasticulture. "Some were pulling plastic by hand, which helps with weeds and keeps berries cleaner," Talbert relates, "but nobody was doing true annual plasticulture production using firm, packed raised beds and sub-surface drip irrigation (SSDI) with concomitant lab testing and informed fertigation."
In contemporary production, a plasticulture machine or "bedder" is used to form the rows the plants grow in. Well-worked soil is gathered by the bedder and is pressed into a firm-packed, raised bed perhaps 7-10 inches high, which collects and retains heat and confers the benefit of these "thermal units." At the same time, drip tape is buried 3-4 inches beneath the surface of the raised bed. As the drip tape is buried and the bed is pressed into shape, plastic is pulled and stretched tight, with soil pushed up against the side of the bed to cover the sides and hold the plastic in place. Talbert summarizes, "The genius of the buried drip irrigation is not only extreme efficiency, leading to enormous water conservation, but also the fact that the water and nutrients are effectively delivered directly to the root zone. This leads to fewer inputs, less waste, and less threat to the environment from fertilizer and other run-off and contamination."
Talbert took the intel he gathered from Arkansas growers and leveraged it to the benefit of Stilwell, Oklahoma due to a brilliant grant program. Talbert explains, "Kenda Woodburn, a most helpful OSU Extension Agent, told me about a 'diversification grant' administered by the Oklahoma Agriculture Enhancement and Diversification Board. I wrote a proposal highlighting my findings and detailing a budget. Moreover, I emphasized that having strawberries for our state fruit, juxtaposed against less robust growing methods and dwindling acreage in the 'Strawberry Capital," necessitated intervention." Integrating a "u-pick" component for the public to enjoy picking their own farm-fresh berries, something curiously not available in Stilwell, further helped Talbert secure a $5,000 grant to partially fund the project.
Growing technologies and plant stewardship are not the only things getting an update, however. Talbert was shocked to learn that the website domain "StiwellStrawberries.com" was available. "I couldn't believe that web address was still available for an import like me to waltz in from out of state and scoop up," Talbert shared, "and so we've focused on modernizing the marketing side of things too with our various websites." When internet marketing is coupled with raising premium strawberry varieties, like Chandler and Flavor Fest, the combined effect has been quite positive. "We've seen a renewed interest in Stilwell Strawberries. Our J5 Farm berries are regularly taken to Sanders Nursery all the way over in Broken Arrow, OK south of Tulsa. And we're in thirteen Harps Grocery Stores on either side of the state line ranging from Siloam Springs, Arkansas clear down to Waldron, Arkansas and Poteau, Oklahoma. We've even delivered to a grocer in Broken Bow, OK, allowing Texan tourists headed to Hochatown and Broken Bow Lake to enjoy the fruits of our labor!" Talbert added that people are additionally using the internet to arrange "pick-your-own" trips and even reserve berry purchases for the Stilwell Strawberry Festival. "This would have been tough without the support of the diversification grant," Talbert concludes, "and we're very thankful for these types of programs that can blossom into benefits for so many people."
Company Name: Stilwell Strawberries
Contact Person: Scott Talbert
Address:RR 2 Box 1220
Country: United States