Editor’s note: This is the second half of “Times Change in the Strawberry Industry”; the first half ran Oct. 10.
No rest for the weary
By the end of the day, the laborers – Granddaddy Gilbert Alderman’s family members; there was no room in the budget for extra help – would have hands, knees and backs screaming for rest. But they had to keep going. With farming, the window for planting closes quickly and accepts no excuses for delays.
Later came the fertilizer. He would dig a trench between the rows and fill it with a nitrogen fertilizer. Then he made sure the plants received sufficient water, so they would produce lots of blooms. He watched for pests such as caterpillars, worms and aphids. Granddaddy also kept a watchful eye on the leaves for signs of fungus or parasites.
Granddaddy covered the rows with a layer of mulch to deter weed growth, and to keep the little plants clean by keeping them from lying directly on the soil. If winter was approaching, he would be ready with row covers made of plastic, or with sheets of straw made from hay, to protect the little tender plants and flowers from freeze damage.
Nervous times for the Strawberry Industry
With strawberry farming, cooler temperatures are needed, but extreme cold can destroy a crop overnight. This is when the family stayed up all night, and sometimes several nights, and kept water running on the plants.
They had to stay awake to make sure nothing happened to the pumps powering the sprinklers. (They couldn’t rest anyway, for fear that their livelihood would be wiped out in a single night.)
The water would freeze, making a thin layering of ice, which, oddly enough, helped to protect the prissy little plants from the cold, chilling winds that would blow and wreak havoc on the fields.
Our father, “Cowboy George” Perocchi, had grown strawberries. But it really wasn’t his “cup of tea.” He was a vegetable grower and very proud of the crops that his farmland yielded. Well, that was then, and this is now.
Berries replace vegetables
After our father’s death, his wife, Caroline Alderman Perocchi, leased the land to a local grower for strawberry farming. This was common for the strawberry industry in our community. Big strawberry growers started buying and leasing acres of land in order to increase the berries’ production.
The farmer of today does it a little differently than my grandfather did. In mid-August, commercial farmers begin readying the fields for planting. After the previous harvest, the land is plowed, fertilized and heaped up into rounded rows that are leveled on top.
(After the previous harvest, a cover crop is planted to put back some of the nutrients in the soil that were taken out. Doing this helps the new crop, if it is done carefully and given enough time for the nutrients to soak into the soil.)
Unlike Granddaddy, today’s farmers have the advantage of using tractors and special equipment to accomplish the numerous important tasks, such as covering the rows with plastic.
Some farmers add drip irrigation tape alongside the rows so they can water and fertilize the plants more efficiently. They do this before the plastic mulch is added and a fumigant is sprayed on the soil to destroy any diseases that might be in the dirt from previous crops.
One thing hasn’t changed since Granddaddy’s day, though: The planting still has to be done by hand. And huge farms require lots of manual workers.
Join me next time, on my back porch, as I watch the strawberry season unfold and the migrant workers start planting the delicate little plants into their suit of plastic and soil. Happy memories! Happy farming! Always a farmer’s daughter.
Dale Bliss feels blessed to be able to live on the same Plant City farm where she was born and raised. Her father, “Cowboy George” Perocchi, called Dale his “little crate-maker” because she made wooden boxes for their vegetables.