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It's harvest time for Basin strawberry plants

MACDOEL - Not all strawberry fields are forever.

Contrary to The Beatles song, strawberry fields around Butte Valley and other areas of the Klamath Basin are mostly short-term. Before they go dormant for the winter, strawberry plants are uprooted and shipped elsewhere to bear fruit.

It's a process that happens mostly at night. Fields are lit by portable lights. An armada of speciality equipment is used to uproot and collect the plants, which are packed in refrigerated trucks, then shipped south and replanted.

Things happens quickly. It usually takes less than 48 hours to dig up, transport and transplant.

It's part of a process that makes fresh strawberries available at grocery stores on a nearly year-round basis. The plants being uprooted were put in the ground as root stock in early April. By late November or early December, the relocated strawberries will be producing fruit.

"Instead of being up here wasting energy until next spring, they'll be growing and producing," said Kenny Elwood, Jr., co-general manager for the Redding-based Lassen Canyon Nursery. "The plants think it's spring. Basically, what we're doing is manipulating the plant."

Lassen Canyon owns and leases thousands of acres in Butte Valley and other areas of the Klamath Basin, and the Shastina, McArthur and Manteca areas of northern California. Elwood oversees a team of 1,100 workers that moves from higher to lower elevation fields uprooting and shipping strawberry plants September through January.

Harvesting of Lassen Canyon's Butte Valley plants, mostly located in the Macdoel area, began Sept. 26. After the 724 acres of plants are collected, crews will shift operations to Shastina, probably in early November.

The job sometimes runs seven days a week, depending on orders from strawberry growers in sunnier, warmer areas of California. Crews work 10 to 12 hours a day, usually collecting plants from 25 acres daily. Elwood said the process involves shipping up to 30 truckloads a day, or about 13 million plants. To keep work operating smoothly, the staff includes four full-time mechanics.

Crews begin setting up for the night's work about 8 p.m., when dinner is also served at Lassen Canyon's cookhouse near Macdoel. Using specially modified equipment, they begin work at 10, break for "lunch" about 4 a.m., resume their tasks, break to eat sack lunches mid-morning and continue until the selected fields are cleared.

Elwood said digging begins at night because ,Itkeepstheplantsfrombeinginasmuchofashock.BR>
Fields are first trimmed by mowers that chop off the top layer of leaves. They're followed by a dozen or more diggers, machines with blades that cut about six inches deep into the soil, break the root runners, pull out the plants, send them through a revolving cylinder that shakes away dust and dirt, and deposits plants into 4- by 4-foot bins.

Bins, which weigh about 750 pounds when filled, are slid onto cleared fields and retrieved by loaders that drive them to the refrigerated trucks.

Stripped fields are quickly replanted with rye. The rye will later be plowed, reseeded and plowed again to help depleted fields "repair themselves. You've got to take care care of your ground," Elwood said.


The tops of the strawberry plants are mowed before harvest. Digging machines follow after the mowers cutting about six inches into the soil to break the root runners.


Under the rotation plan, fields that grew strawberry plants this year will be planted with soil rejuvenating rye for two years before being replanted with strawberries in 2007.

Plants now being collected are mostly being shipped to Oxnard and Orange County, Calif. Others are sent to Santa Maria and Watsonville. Earlier shipments went further south to Baja California and San Diego and Orange counties.

Elwood says the explosion of strawberry varieties, combined with the ability to produce on a near year-round basis and the fruit's acknowledged health benefits, have significantly improved the market.

"The public seems to be buying more berries," he says. "People want nice tasting, delicious berries. It's not quantity as much as it's quality. We try to have the best quality and the best plants."


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