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Mississippi strawberries have quality, better taste

Few growers remain in the strawberry business in Mississippi, but consumers still like to buy local produce because of its fresh taste.

“It tastes like a strawberry,” said Allen Eubanks, who with his wife, Janice, owns Eubanks Produce in Greene County, Miss. “All our strawberries are handpicked, and they are packed, cooled and shipped the same night. From the time we pick to the time they are in stores is about two days maximum.”

Eubanks farms 1,000 acres in Greene and George counties in strawberries, tomatoes, watermelons, squash, bell peppers, cantaloupes, cabbage, broccoli, egg plant and sweet corn. This year, he had 40 acres of strawberries, up about 20 percent from last year.

Mississippi strawberries are harvested from mid-March to the end of April.

“We’re trying to expand our markets,” Eubanks said. His business already supplies Wal-Mart stores in Mississippi and some in Alabama.

Eubanks grows most of his strawberries on black plastic. This season, he grew some in “high tunnels,” unheated, greenhouse-like structures that can be opened and closed to regulate temperature. The technique was quite expensive, but he had strawberries for sale in late December and early January.

“That is a good sales window when California has few strawberries on the market,” Eubanks said.

David Nagel, horticulture specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said California has an almost year-round strawberry growing season. Mississippi harvests for five to six weeks, which makes it difficult to compete with some other states.

“Allen is as advanced as any California, Michigan or Florida grower,” Nagel said.

In addition to the limited season, growing strawberries is expensive and labor-intensive. Nagel said the state has fewer than 45 acres of strawberries. Several small-scale producers farm less than an acre each. Nagel said their fresh produce sells “real well” in local farmers markets.

Eubanks said his strawberries in Wal-Mart are marked with the “Make Mine Mississippi” logo, which helps consumers identify the freshest produce.

Kerry Johnson, Extension area horticulturist for the state’s coastal counties, said strawberries are an excellent but highly perishable crop.

“You have to really prepare for harvest,” Johnson said. “Demand is good, but like any commercial crop, you have to know how to grow it and how to care for the berries after harvest.”

Eubanks employs two people per acre to pick the strawberries. Each field is picked every other day during harvest, and he yields about 15,000 pounds of strawberries per acre. His prices this year were about average at $9 to $10 a flat. Production costs, however, were up dramatically.

“The price may be up just a little bit, but our costs are up about 20 percent or more from last year,” Eubanks said. “Chemicals, fuel and plastic cost more than they did last year, and our profits get slimmer and slimmer.”

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