Scholar studies strawberry potential in Bangladesh

Expertise will be needed, because more and more Bangladeshi farmers are growing strawberries.

Prosanta Dash in a Florida strawberry field.
Prosanta Dash in a Florida strawberry field.

Strawberries are not a common crop in Bangladesh, but they have great potential to improve the lives of the country’s farmers, boost its economy and – perhaps most importantly, because of its dense population and the key role horticultural crops play in nutrition there – strengthen its food security.

Prosanta Dash, a scholar with the Borlaug Higher Education for Agricultural Research and Development (BHEARD) program, is learning as much as he can about strawberries in Florida – knowledge he plans to take back home and apply to Bangladesh.

The goal of BHEARD, supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development, is to develop agricultural scientists and increase agricultural research capacity in Feed the Future partner countries. The program is named after Dr. Norman Borlaug, an American biologist, humanitarian and Nobel laureate who has been called “the father of the Green Revolution.”

Dash, an assistant professor at Khulna University in Bangladesh, is currently seeking a Ph.D. in Horticultural Sciences at the University of Florida. He plans to go back home in August 2018, and expects to complete his doctorate by August 2019.

Florida is a good place to study strawberries. Fresh-market strawberries are worth billions of dollars in the United States, and Florida is the biggest producer after California. It’s also the leading producer of winter berries in the country.

Dash’s research in Florida will give him knowledge about a crop that few Bangladeshi researchers are familiar with. His expertise will be needed, because more and more Bangladeshi farmers are planting strawberries. Grown during the country’s cool season – November to April, when local fruits typically aren’t available – the crop’s commercial potential is enormous: One acre of winter strawberries could earn a Bangladeshi farmer anywhere from $6,000 to $7,500 annually.

There are challenges, however. Heat stress is a major constraint of small-fruit production in Bangladesh, a sub-tropical country with hot summers and mild winters. Mean annual temperature has been rising in the last few years, so heat stress is likely to be even more of an impediment. That’s why the largest strawberry concentrations are in the northern regions of Bangladesh, where conditions are more favorable to growth.

In the fight against heat stress, management options are limited. Bangladeshi growers have only a few locally developed cultivars to choose from, and none of them are heat-tolerant.

In Florida, Dash is studying ways to mitigate heat stress on strawberry transplants during early planting. Abscisic acid is one option. A plant growth regulator, abscisic acid has been shown to increase heat stress tolerance and enhance crop establishment for many types of transplants.

Kaolin, an organic mineral compound rich in kaolinite, is used to mitigate heat and drought stress in various crops. Kaolin forms a white film on the leaf surface that increases the reflection of incoming solar radiation, changing the radiation and heat balance and reducing the risk of heat stress from high temperatures and solar injury. Kaolin’s anti-transpirant effect can have positive repercussions for transplant establishment, too, according to Dash.

Reflective mulch is another mitigation option. Strawberry is generally grown on black plastic mulch in Florida, but reflective mulch – such as white-on-black plastic – could lower soil and air temperatures around transplants.

Dash also is studying ways to conserve water during irrigation. Historically, the Florida strawberry industry has used bare-root strawberry transplants established in a hill production system. This system depends on copious amounts of sprinkler irrigation during the 10 to 14 days after transplanting, in order to cool the crowns and promote new root growth. Using sprinkler irrigation, bare-root transplant establishment can utilize as much as 540,000 gallons of water per acre – one-third of the total water required for production.

Florida growers are still looking for ways to use less water during the establishment process, but there are no easy options. Containerized strawberry transplants, for example, have a much lower water requirement than bare-root transplants, but they cost twice as much, according to Dash.

Armed with the knowledge he’s gained in Florida, Dash surveyed Bangladeshi strawberry farmers in the summer of 2017. The results of the survey will inform the design of a field study he will conduct in two locations, starting in October 2018 and running through March 2019.

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