LA SELVA BEACH, Calif. — A state agency is aiding the California Strawberry Commission’s quest for fumigation alternatives with an infusion of $500,000 for a three-year research project.

Brian Leahy, director of the Department of Pesticide Regulation, announced the funding March 7 with commission president Mark Murai at Monterey Bay Academy in La Selva Beach.

The site has been used by the commission for research since 1992. The latest will be part of a 5.5-acre project in the Watsonville area testing soil-less growing media for strawberries, such as peat and coconut coir, a fiber from the fruit’s hull.

“The 500 or so strawberry family farms throughout California have been working since the early 1990s on fumigant alternatives,” Murai said. “But we’re very energized to start this larger collaborative effort with the Department of Pesticide Regulation to really expand the project into growers’ fields. It’s going to add a magnitude to the strawberry growers’ ongoing efforts.”

Watsonville strawberry grower and commission vice chair Victor Ramirez is among the research trial participants.

“It’s a commitment to working with our partners to make strawberry production a really good neighbor,” Leahy said.

But soil alternatives face obstacles in cost, logistics and availability.

Substrates like peat and coconut coir run $10,000 per acre — two to three times methyl bromide, — said Dan Legard, commission research director. In California, where the average profit per acre on strawberries is $1,000 to $1,500, the numbers don’t add up.

California kicks in for strawberry fumigant alternatives“Our goal is to get the costs down to $5,000 or $4,000, or maybe less,” Legard said. “That’s the real challenge.”

Belgium and the Netherlands use substrates for strawberries, but in greenhouses, and in a market that pays double what U.S. growers get.

“We’re trying to modify what they’re doing in Europe,” Legard said.

The state funding, he said, puts commission efforts on a new level.

“It’s very expensive to work new trials in strawberry fields because of the number of harvests and the value of the crop, so typically they’re done on a small scale,” Legard said. “You get a big enough area and you learn what the challenges are of putting that into a production system.”

Peat is reputed to be the best soil alternative, but can’t be used more than a year. Mixed with another substrate it might last two or three years, he said, and cut replacement costs.

It isn’t just about economics, though.

“One of the largest producers of peat in America told us if we switched all of California’s strawberry acreage, that exceeds their entire production,” Legard said.

The state produces about 39,000 acres of strawberries.