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Harvesting strawberries

Key points

  • June-bearing strawberry harvest season is a very busy 3-6 weeks from mid-June to mid-July.
  • Day-neutral strawberries must be harvested every 1-3 days from early July through October, or until the plants are killed by frost or stop producing.
  • Account for harvest labor requirements when considering which system is best for you and how large of a field you can manage.
  • Proper packaging, picking technique, grading (sorting fruit for quality control), and packing are all important for successful strawberry yield and revenue.

Harvest period and frequency of harvest

Side-by-side bins of strawberries on a grassy area.
Strawberries being harvested in a University of Minnesota variety trial
  • An acre of June-bearing strawberries should produce 8,000 to 12,000 pounds per acre per year if it is healthy and well-managed. Yields can vary widely depending on management practices and other factors like weather.
  • Day-neutral strawberries can yield significantly higher than June-bearing strawberries. They produce 0.75 to 1.25 pounds per plant or about 10,000 to 20,000 pounds per acre.
  • June-bearing strawberries are picked for 3 to 6 weeks, from mid-June to mid-July in Minnesota. 
  • Day-neutral strawberries are harvested beginning in early July and ending when they succumb to frost or freeze in the fall. Low tunnels, high tunnels, and caterpillar tunnels extend the harvest season for day-neutral strawberries so that growers can continue harvesting through October. The yield drops off substantially toward the end of the season as cool temperatures slow berry development.

Harvest every 1 to 3 days during the harvest period

In Minnesota, harvesting every other day is typical unless hot weather or spotted wing drosophila (SWD) infestations necessitate daily harvest. Research has found that harvesting berries every 1 to 2 days rather than every 3 days reduces SWD infection and increases marketable yield. More frequent harvest also decreases the likelihood of fruit rots like botrytis gray mold. 

The duration of the harvest, and how often berries are picked, also depend on weather conditions, variety, soil factors, irrigation, and the health of the plants. 

Plants that are irrigated and fertilized properly through fertigation or granular fertilizers will produce higher daily yields as fruit ripens more quickly and berries are larger in size. This calls for more frequent harvests.

Weather

Weather conditions such as heavy rains during the harvest period can interfere with the harvest schedule by delaying scheduled picking times. Some growers continue picking during rain, while others wait for rain to stop before returning to the fields.

Walking and kneeling on wet ground compacts the soil. And wet berries have a higher chance of developing mold in storage. However, if yields are heavy and rainfall is frequent, it may sometimes be necessary to harvest during unfavorable conditions.

Labor requirements for picking strawberries

Both systems have high labor demands during the harvest season. Using a U-pick business model may decrease worker hours in the field, but requires more hours managing customers.

As a general rule, six to nine pickers are needed for each acre of June-bearing strawberries, in order to adhere to a schedule of picking all ripe fruit every 1 to 2 days. Pickers must be instructed by a competent crew leader about proper picking (to prevent plant injury), fruit handling, and sorting (grading) in the field.

If you're selling U-pick June-bearing strawberries, a general goal is to plant a large enough strawberry field to satisfy the local demand for U-pick strawberries. One U-pick customer will generally pick 1to 3 flats (5 lbs. each) per hour depending on the amount of berries in the field, size of the berries, and their speed. Smaller berries take longer to pick. We do not currently have Minnesota-specific data on how many pounds the average U-pick customer picks.

Day-neutral strawberries are typically harvested by the grower and their employees. According to UMN West Central Research and Outreach Center records, it takes 720 labor hours per year to pick an acre of day-neutral strawberries. Divided over a 14-week season, this would equate to about 51 hours per week.

Most growers choose to have more than one person working an acre of day-neutral strawberries. If no labor help is available, start with a small planting (like 1/4 to 1/2 acre) and see how long it takes you to harvest before scaling up.

Video: Strawberry Farming: Hiring Extra Labor (02:53)

How to tell if a strawberry is ripe

Ripe, red Cabrillo strawberries in a person's hands.
Ripe strawberries showing no white
  • Only harvest berries that are red, showing that they are fully ripe.
  • Berries still showing white anywhere on the berry, including the shoulders, should be left for the next picking.
  • The flavor and sugar levels are optimal when berries are harvested when fully ripe.

Containers for picking strawberries

  • Strawberries are entirely hand-picked in Minnesota. They can be harvested into clamshells, cardboard flats, or cardboard pint or quart containers.
  • U-pick berry farms often provide customers cardboard flats or buckets to pick into. After picking, U-pick berries are typically sold by the pound in Minnesota, but they can also be sold by volume.
  • Growers interviewed in Minnesota who sell U-pick berries by the pound say they do this because some customers can pile a lot more into a flat than others.

Post-harvest storage

If selling pre-picked strawberries, fill pint or quart containers and cover them with plastic film or rigid plastic domes (clamshells). The filled containers can be stored on cardboard or fiberboard trays that hold twelve one-pint containers to prevent damage.

An attractive package with the fruit visible will be more enticing to customers and may bring premium prices.

After harvest, quickly place harvested berries in a cool, shady location such as a temporary field shed. Store the berries preferably at 32° F to 35°F and at 90% to 95% relative humidity. This is particularly important if the berries will be in storage for more than a day.

Growers selling berries wholesale may enrich the storage atmosphere with carbon dioxide to a 10% to 40% level using dry ice to extend the storage life. Under these conditions, berries should remain salable for three to five days during shipping, storage and marketing.

Food safety

Ensure safe processing of all fruit and take advantage of University of Minnesota produce safety resources.

Video: Strawberry Farming: Food Safety (01:57)

Authors: Annie Klodd, Emily Tepe, and Emily Hoover, Extension educators

Reviewed in 2021

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