Growing up in Tokyo, Chieri Kubota savored fresh strawberries brimming with flavor in the winter. Only when she went to college and studied agriculture did she learn that fresh strawberries in winter are "an unusual cycle against nature," she said.
Today Kubota is trying to perfect that off-season cycle and grow strawberries hydroponically in a greenhouse in the University of Arizona Controlled Environment Agriculture Center, which is part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Her goal is to introduce sustainable strawberry cultivation to local greenhouse growers and provide sweet luscious berries for restaurants, high-end grocers and farmers markets.
She knows it can be done. "I'm from Japan. We grow strawberries in greenhouses in winter." Some are grown hydroponically.
Kubota is a widely published professor in the UA School of Plant Sciences and the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, and a member of the UA's BIO5 Institute. She completed a doctorate from Chiba University in Japan, did post-doctoral research training at Clemson University in South Carolina and Laval University in Canada, then joined the faculty of her alma mater. She came to the UA in 2002 to work with hydroponic tomatoes and explore the potential of adding sustainable strawberries to local greenhouse production.
In the United States the majority of strawberries are grown in California. The plant varieties – or cultivars – are bred for that climate. In the desert, even in a greenhouse, it's a challenge to approximate that mild misty coastal climate.
Kubota's co-principal investigator on the project is research specialist Mark Kroggel, who has a Master of Science degree in horticultural science. Kroggel designed an under-the-bench fog system that releases humidity at night so the strawberries are dewy moist by dawn. It's turned on for five minutes at time, three times an hour, for three hours. This is "technology to make the plants happier," Kubota said.
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