New Project on Indoor Production of Strawberries in a Converted Poultry House

Gordon Johnson, Extension Vegetable & Fruit Specialist;

When poultry growers lose a contract to grow chickens for an integrator, these poultry houses are retired or are left unused, and income is lost. There are over 1200 such houses on the Delmarva peninsula. There is interest in converting these houses into indoor lighted hydroponic growing facilities as a new income source. The long-term vision is to create opportunities for farmers with retired poultry houses to profit by growing produce for regional markets. To do so, the University of Delaware Cooperative Extension Fruit and Vegetable program and the Delaware Indoor Agriculture Laboratory (DIAL) in Plant and Soil Sciences are teaming up with a local farmer to provide research, outreach, and training for prospective growers.

A demonstration unit for lighted indoor hydroponic production of strawberries will be created in a retrofitted poultry house. Protected culture of strawberries is a growing field with most production occurring in the field under low tunnels of in high tunnels. More recently, attention has been paid to greenhouse production of strawberries in off seasons with greenhouse growers marketing strawberries as locally grown.

Interest has been growing for lighted indoor production of strawberries using existing facilities such as warehouses. This project will assess the potential of using empty poultry houses for that production. Currently, research on indoor lighted strawberry production is very limited. In this project, University of Delaware researchers will conduct optimization research on these strawberries including cultivar evaluations, plant density studies, and lighting program evaluations. Information from these efforts will be extended through electronic resources, field days, grower informational meetings, and on-farm training sessions.

An additional goal is to demonstrate how to convert a poultry house to address food safety concerns for produce production.

Delmarva is adjacent to large markets and year-round production of strawberries in these retrofitted poultry houses could provide premium product to these regional markets rather than shipping from California, Mexico, or Florida.