Story By Marilou Suszko | Photos by Jodi Miller
On a typical February day, Ross County Farm Bureau members Al and Christie Welch lifted the row covers protecting the strawberry plants on their farm. “I saw signs of life among the dead and brown,” Christie said. “It was wonderful and overwhelming all at once.”
Fresh, budding green plants were a welcome sight but there was work ahead to clear what winter had finished off and pick the sprouting weeds that kept up with the new growth. “It’s definitely a love-hate relationship,” she said, siding mostly with love, because anticipation for fresh Ohio strawberries beats all.
Welch Family Farms goes back four generations. The farm was primarily dairy cattle, hay and grain for feed and potatoes. Today the transition has been to commodity crops as the backbone of the farm with garden variety veggies and a steady u-pick strawberry business including a field of prolific blackberry bushes planted 30 years ago by her husband. “In those days, our berries were sold to friends and neighbors,” Christie said. “Today we see people from all over the country who notice our little road sign.” This could be why Christie and Al, with a lot of help from her family, take on this labor intensive crop.
The process is an annual event that begins in August when Christie gets her strawberry runner tips from Nova Scotia. Properly called “stolons,” they are horizontal growing shoots, branches or twigs springing from the root, “We stick them in 50-cell trays filled with potting soil and let them grow for about 30 days,” she said, “and then in September we plant them in raised beds and keep them going all winter.”
When cold weather arrives, floating row covers protect the plants. “The whole field looks like it’s covered with a sheet,” Christie said.
Once it warms, the covers are lifted and leaves burnt from the cold are removed along with fresh weeds. Blooms appear by April but if the danger of frost arises, the row covers go back on the plants at night and are removed the next day to let the pollinators in.
Strawberries are traditionally grown in straw-matted rows but Christie uses the plasticulture method, an annual production system commonly found in the southern states but catching on in other berry growing regions. With this method matured runners are planted on raised beds fitted with a drip irrigation system and covered in black plastic, which prevents water loss from evaporation and helps the soil warm earlier than it otherwise would, which boosts growth.
“This means that we can harvest in May, about a month earlier than most in the state,” she said. It varies depending on the weather, but Christie typically welcomes u-pick customers by Mother’s Day, almost three weeks earlier than most growers.
“You can continue the crop for another year, but the plants keep growing and develop branch crown so the following year berries would be smaller and harder to pick,” Christie said. The main variety grown at Welch Farms is called Chandler. Big in size and flavor, it does well in Ohio’s cool climate and on a plasticulture system.
“For us, it’s not economical to keep the plant for another year.” By replanting every year the yields are better, maybe one pound of fruit per plant, and the berries are larger, much easier for the u-pick customers to gather.
“Once harvest is done, we tear everything out,” Christie said, “and do it all over again.”
Read the Welches’ tips for sustaining farmers markets.
Marilou Suszko is a food writer from Vermilion. She is the author of “Farms and Foods of Ohio: From Garden Gate to Dinner Plate” and “The Locavore’s Kitchen.”
Welch Farms LLC
Al & Christie Welch
319 East Hydell Road
Follow their strawberry season at Welch Farms LLC on Facebook.