Santa Barbara County’s # 1 Sweet Culture: Strawberries | Judith Dale | Chroniclers
Strawberries are the # 1 crop in Santa Barbara County as of 2020, with over 10,500 acres planted across the county worth $ 727,444,000. Avocados come in second, with 5,768 acres planted.
I had no idea that strawberries were such an important crop in Santa Barbara County, and as I began my research, many questions arose: why are the seeds outside the berry and not inside like other fruits? Why are they called strawberries? Are they growing all over the world or just in the United States?
Today, China is the world’s largest producer of strawberries, producing 3 million tonnes per year, or 40% of the total. The United States comes in second with 1.4 million tonnes, including California at 70%. Mexico, Turkey and Spain complete the top five remaining world producers.
anecdote: if all the strawberries produced in California in a year were laid berry by berry, they would circle the earth 15 times!
Strawberries grew natively in Asia, Europe, and North and South America. Africa, Australia and New Zealand are the only areas where strawberries did not grow initially. When settlers arrived in Virginia, Native Americans used wild strawberries in many dishes. A special pastry was made with strawberries and cornmeal. The natives and the early settlers did not bother growing strawberries because they were so abundant in the wild.
The settlers returned wild strawberry plants to Europe because American strawberries were larger and tastier than those from Europe.
Fast forward to 1714, when a French spy on a mission in Chile to obtain information on the Spanish fortifications spotted some very large local strawberries. He brought the plants back to France and planted them near some Virginia strawberry plants. The two varieties pollinated each other by crossbreeding, and the result was large, bright, tasty and abundant berries that no one in the world had seen before. These plants, cultivated purely by accident, are the ancestors of all commercially grown strawberries today.
Over the years, more and more research has led to the creation of better tasting hybrids, the production of more and larger berries, the ability to resist disease, etc. Yet all of them come from the crossbreeding of their ancestors from Virginia and Chile. The botanical name for today’s strawberries is Fragaria x ananassa. The letter “x” in its name indicates that the modern strawberry is of hybrid origin and, in the case of our contemporary strawberries, of two different species, one from Virginia and the other from Chile.
Botanically, the “fruit” of the strawberry is not a berry at all. Strawberries are part of the rose family (rosaceae). The fleshy and edible part of the plant does not come from the ovaries of the plant but from the receptacle that contains the ovaries. Each “seed” on the outside of the fruit is one of the flower’s ovaries. This is why the seeds are on the outside of the berry, not on the inside like the seeds of real fruits and berries are. When birds eat strawberries, they do not digest the seeds but pass them on with their droppings. When the seeds find fertile ground, they grow new plants with both soil and fertilizer. This is why strawberries were so common in nature.
How did strawberries get their name? One theory is that it stems from the fact that strawberry plants were often mulched with straw during the winter to keep the plants from freezing. Another idea is that the strawberry is probably a corruption of “berry strewn” because the plants produced runners and spread. As a result, its berries were scattered on the ground. A third theory is that English children picked wild strawberries, impaled them on grass straws and sold them to the public. No one knows for sure, but today it’s strawberry.
Commercial production of strawberries
For commercial production, the plants are grown from runners and, in general, distributed as bare rooted plants or clods. Cultivation follows two general patterns: annual plasticulture or a perennial system of rows or tangled mounds. The greenhouses produce a small number of strawberries during the off-season.
Most modern commercial productions use the plasticulture system. In this method, raised beds are formed annually, fumigated and covered with plastic to prevent weed growth and erosion. The plants are planted through holes drilled in this coating and irrigation pipes are passed underneath. Runners are removed from plants as they grow to encourage them to devote most of their energy to fruit development. The plastic is removed at the end of the harvest season and the plants are buried in the ground.
Because strawberry plants older than a year or two begin to decline in productivity and fruit quality, the system of replacing plants each year results in improved yields and denser plantings. However, as this requires a longer growing season to allow plants to establish each year, and due to the increased costs of forming and covering mounds and purchasing plants each year, it is not. still practical in all regions. (Our mild climate and long growing season favor this method.)
The other main method, which uses the same plants from year to year in rows or on mounds, is most common in colder climates. This is because it has lower investment costs and lower overall maintenance requirements. However, the yields are generally lower than those of plasticulture.
The harvesting and cleaning process hasn’t changed much over time. The delicate strawberries are still harvested by hand. Grading and packaging often takes place in the field rather than at a processing facility. To maintain top quality, berries are harvested at least every other day. The berries are picked with the caps still attached and at least half an inch of stem left.
Strawberries must remain on the plant to fully ripen as they do not continue to ripen after being picked. Rotten and overripe berries are removed to minimize insect and disease problems. Berries are only washed right before consumption, so always wash your strawberries before eating them, not only to remove dirt, but also to rinse off pesticides. There are over 200 species of pests that can attach themselves to strawberries.
Strawberries are very nutritious. They contain 91% water, 8% carbohydrates, 1% protein and almost no fat. At just 33 calories per cup, strawberries provide 71% of the required daily vitamin C, 18% manganese, and small amounts of other essential vitamins and minerals such as folate, potassium, fiber, and antioxidants.
The ancient Romans considered strawberries as a medicine and used them to treat many health problems such as melancholy (depression), fainting, inflammation, fevers, throat infections, kidney stones, bad breath , gout and diseases of the blood, liver and spleen.
In the United States, by weight, strawberries are the fifth most consumed fresh fruit behind bananas, apples, oranges and grapes. The annual consumption of strawberries per person has steadily increased since 1970, from 3 pounds to over 6 pounds today.
Freeze your berries
Most people don’t realize that you can freeze fresh strawberries to eat them later. First, wash the berries, hull them, arrange them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper so that they do not touch each other and freeze them until they are solid. Then transfer the frozen berries individually to a zippered freezer bag and store in the freezer for up to a year. We are lucky here because we can get fresh strawberries all year round. However, I found it good to have some in the freezer to make that quick smoothie or ice cream topping.
It’s no wonder that the strawberry is a symbol for Venus, the goddess of love, due to its heart shape and red color, not to mention its sweet taste. We are fortunate to have fresh strawberries all year round. Take advantage, because where else can you get great taste and great nutrition for so few calories, while supporting our local farmers?
Such a win-win food. Enjoy!
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