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Family operation gives strawberries head start

High-elevation nursery hardens off plants to speed production

by Jacqui Krizo for the Capital Press

HERE for VIDEO > Giving strawberries a head start

< Randy Jertberg demonstrates how the trimmers discard the damaged, small and mother strawberry plants as they count and package them.

TULELAKE, Calif. - The dream of a Southern California 4-Her in the 1930s led to the production of more than a quarter-billion strawberry plants last year by Sierra-Cascade Nursery.

Randy Jertberg's late father, Joe, grew up east of Los Angeles and raised plants and animals in 4-H. He had always wanted to create a nursery, so with earnings from being a sailor in World War II, he bought land and began growing fruit, including strawberries.

After Randy Jertberg graduated from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, he married, and he and his father founded Sierra-Cascade Nursery Inc. in 1977. Randy moved north to higher elevation near Susanville, Calif., to grow strawberry plants, their main crop, and 15 years ago he moved farther north to the Klamath Basin to grow the plants in Bonanza, Ore., and Tulelake and Butte Valley, Calif. The Jertbergs built trim sheds in Susanville, their corporate headquarters, Tulelake, and Ballico in the San Joaquin Valley.

In the low-elevation San Joaquin Valley they grow planting stock. Those plants are cold-stored, and then are planted in April at the higher-elevation nurseries where they multiply.

We grow at high elevations to harden off plants for early digging," Jertberg said. "The further north, the more hours of chilling for the plants, and the earlier you can lift (dig), the earlier the growers can plant, and the earlier they can produce strawberries. They're picking strawberries before Christmas."

< Javier Chevez is ranch manager at Sierra-Cascade Nursery’s Tulelake facility. About 500 people are employed at the Tulelake trim shed from the H-2A guestworker program, about half domestics and half from Mexico.

Last year the Jertbergs produced more than 100 million strawberry plants in the Klamath Basin; altogether they grew more than a quarter-billion plants on 1,000 acres.
Strawberry plants in the nursery's program have at least a three-year rotation with endives and grain.

In September, the Jertbergs begin to dig and clean the plants at night because it's cooler and more humid. Randy Jertberg designed most of the harvest equipment, which his crew built at the company's shop in Bonanza.

Jertberg said, "The trimmers discard the small, damaged and mother plants, trim the roots, count, package, cool and ship them mostly to fruit growers in Southern and Central California, where they plant them immediately to produce strawberries."

The discarded leaves and plants are composted to fertilize the fields.

The Tulelake trim shed alone employs more than 500 people; the Jertbergs have about 1,500 total employees during fall strawberry harvest.

John Wells, Sierra Cascade's northern ranch manager, said, "The success of the company is a combined effort of many skilled and talented people. Randy, along with his father, ... had very good foresight on where the industry was headed. Sierra Cascade will continue to be a leader in the strawberry nursery business."

Several challenges face the Sierra-Cascade Nursery business. Jertberg said, "We used to grow garlic for 18 years, but Chinese imports stopped that. They could deliver dehydrated garlic cheaper than we could produce it here."

A critical threat to the operation's mint and strawberry plants is disease control for verticilium wilt in the soil. The Jertbergs fumigate the land, try to keep it isolated and clean, and use no post-fumigation herbicides.

"We're losing fumigants to the environmentalists," Jertberg said. "Bromide gas comes off the oceans. The percentage used here is so minuscule. The Montreal Protocol's international mandate for cleaning up the ozone is being used to get methyl bromide taken away from us."

If the strawberry transplants get disease, the fruit growers could lose their crop. Jertberg said Mexico does not have the same levels of pesticide restrictions, and only a portion of the exported fruit is tested for chemical presence.

Another major challenge is finding legal, dependable labor. Three years ago Jertberg began the H-2A guestworker program. His company spent more than a million dollars for the extra payroll and associated costs, and it pays a minimum of $9.94 per hour. He said, "Attorney expenses are a major part of the expense defending SCN from groups dedicated against a guestworker program."

They company recruits, feeds and houses the workers, and it transports them to and from Mexico.

"The H-2A program demands that we hire domestics first, and the employer is essentially prohibited by law to investigate the domestic workers' legality," Jertberg said. "This year we got over 100 workers from the Oregon unemployment department. Because of poor screening, they even sent us felons. Many referrals were hired, but we now have less than five left. They quit primarily because they didn't want to do that kind of hard work."

Now Sierra-Cascade's labor manager recruits all year in Mexico, finding farm workers happy to get jobs up here to have a better life.

"I'm excited about the program," Jertberg said. "It's an honorable way for them to work legally, a great opportunity. Our harvest crew is about half from Mexico, half domestics, and we do all we can to make sure they are legal."

Since strawberries are all hand-picked on 30,000 acres in California, it is an important industry. Jertberg said, "If we have no dependable labor, and no legal fumigation methods to prevent diseases, we would probably be out-competed by countries like Mexico that do not have similar restrictions."


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