Growing fruit in north central Kansas can be been hit and miss, but new grant funding is helping producers study ways to make it easier.

“We’ve had a couple years that our peach trees never set a bloom because it was so cold. Then, if it gets warm early, you could get in trouble,” said Larry and Teresa Brundridge.

They grow strawberries, peaches and blueberries as well as vegetables at their farm, Country Home Berries in Concordia, Kansas. They’re attempting to beat the weather by stacking strawberries in their hoop house.

“This last year, we planted 1,500 strawberries in the middle of our warm hoop house and plugged strawberries in that ground cover,” Larry said.

With the hope of helping growers like the Brundridges work through the challenges of growing fruit, and other specialty crops such as nuts flowers, the Kansas Department of Agriculture awarded $373,525 through the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program.

A key part of the grant funding – nearly $68,000 – was given to Kansas State University to study the economic potential of growing strawberries under high tunnel greenhouses – or hoop houses like the those used at Country Home Berries. The one-year project started Oct. 1 at the Extension Center in Olathe, Kansas.

“I am very excited about this project. (It) will result in a new supply of a very marketable crop,” said Dr. Eleni Pliakoni, associate professor of urban food production & postharvest handling at K-State.

Pliaknoi is leading the strawberry project. A team of professors will study the effect of different types of mulching on yield and quality of strawberries. The project will compare the economic potential of growing strawberries under high tunnels in comparison to tomato production.

Along with providing fresh fruit, Pliaknoi expects locally growing strawberries will also improve environmental sustainability by reducing mileage the food is traveling.

Grant funding also went to farms in eastern Kansas that are working with county extension on high density apple production systems and using protective netting. That grant totaled just more than $35,000.

Gieringers Family Orchard & Berry Farm in Edgerton, Kansas is one of the farms involved. Another is South Baldwin Farms of Baldwin, Kansas.

In high density orchards, trees are planted close together and supported by tall trellises. The trees produce more fruit and less foliage, but that means the fruit is vulnerable to sunburn. Protective netting can help prevent the damage, said Zac Hoppenstedt, Johnson County horticulture extension agent, who is leading the project there.

The grant will help orchards purchase special hydraulic netting applicators that make the work of netting several acres of 11-foot trellises much easier.

The Depot Market in Courtland, Kansas added high density apples this past spring. The new trellis supports apples as well as blackberries, which are also susceptible to winter injury.

“We have a special trellis you can lay down and use a spun-bound white fabric that comes in different weights to provide protection, so blackberries don’t get winter injury,” said Mark Stadler, farm manager at Depot Market.

The study will compare fruit quality and yield between blocks of covered orchards versus open control blocks.

“Increasing access to shared equipment and demonstrating cutting edge production practices has potential to lift up farmers and local food access in our region,” Hoppenstedt said. “We look forward to sharing project results next year.”

Other projects funded through the grant include:

- $54,174 to KSU for sustainable antimicrobial wash-water systems for growers, helping increase the safety of leafy greens.

- $57,875 for KSU to assist producers in receiving GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certification.

- $38,223 for KSU to identify best management practices for upright dry edible beans, and share findings with dry bean growers.

- $25,000 through the Kansas Department of Agriculture for specialty crop growers to attend conferences.

- $44,739 to Douglas County Research and Extension for specialty crop farmer training programs.

- $42,250 for Greater Northwest Kansas Community Foundation to assist northwestern Kansas producers in scaling up vegetable production and begin delivering to local grocery markets.

Amy Hadachek can be reached at editorial@midwestmessenger.com.