Dr. Ishtiaq Rajwana and Dr. Raheel Anwar

Two Pakistani horticulturists travel to California to examine postharvest practices and strawberry cultivation.

Dr. Rajwana and Dr. Anwar speak to Dr. Steve Fennimore, UC Extension Specialist, and examine strawberry fields.
Dr. Rajwana and Dr. Anwar speak to Dr. Steve Fennimore, UC Extension Specialist, and examine strawberry fields.

Dr. Rajwana and Dr. Anwar speak to Dr. Steve Fennimore, UC Extension Specialist, and examine strawberry fields.

Dr. Rajwana and Dr. Anwar speak to Dr. Steve Fennimore, UC Extension Specialist, and examine strawberry fields.

As part of an ongoing effort to expand agricultural knowledge and improve fruit production, USPCAS-AFS recently approved an initial research project investigating how effective planting and postharvest practices can improve strawberry cultivation in Pakistan.

Dr. Ishtiaq Rajwana, Dean of Faculty of Agriculture and Environmental Science at Muhammad Nawaz Shareef University of Agriculture (MNSUAM) in Multan, and Dr. Raheel Anwar, Assistant Professor in Institute of Horticulture Sciences at University of Agriculture, Faisalabad, were selected to travel to California for a three-week intensive short course on fruit postharvest practices and tour of California strawberry cultivation. They, along with Dr. Louise Ferguson of UC Davis, first proposed the concept of investigating strawberry management as a USPCAS-AFS research project.

“We are interested in all aspects of strawberry industry in Pakistan: starting from nursery to transplants to husbandry, harvesting, marketing,” stated Dr. Rajwana. “Our purpose is to see how different segments compare with the California value chain.”

Strawberries are the sixth most valuable crop in California, providing over $3 billion in annual economic value to the state. California farmers are responsible for 80% of all strawberries grown in the United States, making the state the leader in cultivation expertise. UC Davis is home to the Postharvest Technology Center, which hosts a two-week short course on the biology and handling of horticultural crops.

Dr. Rajwana and Dr. Anwar attended the 39th Annual Postharvest Technology of Horticultural Crops Short Course from June 19-30, where they spent the first week in lectures, discussions, and laboratory sessions related to harvesting systems, cooling and packing methods, and sanitation standardization. The second week of the course consisted of an extensive field tour of several industrial postharvest operations, including field harvest operations, packinghouses, cooling facilities, and distribution centers across California.

Dr. Rajwana and Dr. Anwar were also hosted in the Salinas Valley by Dr. Steven Fennimore, a UC Extension Specialist working on weed management within strawberry crops. With Dr. Fennimore, they visited Salinas, Watsonville, Red Bluff, and Artois looking at strawberry farms.

“With the strawberry plants, we saw the growth from meristem tips to fourth-generation plant distribution systems to ground nurseries,” says Dr. Rajwana. “We saw how the plants and disease free sanitized plants is first initiated and nurtured, and goes through the establishment process from generation one to two, up until the fourth generation which is released to growers and farmers.”

After the conclusion of the Postharvest Short Course and Farm Tour, Dr. Rajwana and Dr. Anwar sat down with USPCAS-AFS to discuss their experience. A condensed version of that conversation is reprinted here.

USPCAS-AFS: What experience do you have with strawberries, and what knowledge did you hope to gain during this visit?

Dr. Rajwana: Prior to doing this project, strawberry was rare in Pakistan. Since we (Dr. Anwar and I) weren’t involved in the industry, we didn’t know what the problems were. Once we started digging into the systems, we found that the industry needs scientific intervention. And not very high-tech intervention; simple techniques. For example, in the nursery land preparations, they are not using any sanitization methods. They can use solar sterilization, which is a technique of covering the area with plastic cover, having a certain moisture content inside, and leaving the land fallow for a month at a certain time.

When Dr. Anwar and I visited nursery land in the Swat Valley, which is a strawberry production area, the people complained that the strawberry is such an exotic and exhaustive crop. They said that once you grow strawberries on certain lands, you cannot get the plants to grow again for two, three, four years, that it takes so much of the soil nutrients. And since we did not know the root of the problem, we assumed they were correct. But after this visit, we know that it’s not an issue of soil nutrients, but actually the pathogens that come with the strawberry plants. They are brought in with the plants, multiply in the soil, and remain there after the strawberries are harvested. The next time the crop is grown, the pathogens are waiting to attack the new plants. These pathogens are there in huge quantities, whether they are soil-born nematodes or fungi. So sterilization from the nursery is an issue, and soil sterilization in the field is an issue. Both can be addressed easily and inexpensively.

There are other issues as well—for example, harvesting. The packing and transportation of the young plant runners is being done in a crude way, as though they are not a living, producing plant. Here in California, we’ve seen how the runners are harvested carefully, with a machine that will dig underneath the runner root and then agitates the soil away from the runner to leave a clean, healthy plant. They will then electronically analyze the harvested runners and separate those that are good from bad ones. The good strawberry runners are sent towards a nursery packing line, and the bad runners are kept away from the production supply line.

Coming back to the production side, we went last year to Swat and the nursery production area, we made contacts with nursery growers who were interested in collaborating with the university. We ordered 50,000 plants to be grown in Multan near the university (MNSUAM), and upon delivery, there were issues that we would not have identified if we were not going through this project. The plants were of poor quality and mixed varieties, some producing runners and some bad runners. Once we start planting, we learned that the labor we had hired did not know how to properly transplant the young strawberries into the ground. Here at UC Davis, we learned that the plant root must be placed in the soil in a straight manner; otherwise, planting the runners so that the root end curls up will result in too long of a maturation time for the plant. They will not grow and produce fruit in time if the root curled during the planting process. It ruins the purpose of the plant, which is to grow fruit! These are basic techniques that should easily be shared among the industry, for everyone’s interest.

USPCAS-AFS: What are your action steps upon your return to Pakistan?

Dr. Rajwana: One is soil management, both in the nursery and production areas. Soil management will cover management of pathogens, weed control… another area would be harvesting of runners from soil and the grading of the runners; that way, producers who want to buy the best plant varieties will be able to do so. Then, shipping the runners in a better way, under better conditions… at the site of reception of the plants, handling them better, getting them into somewhere with a lower temperature to preserve the plant, sowing them as early as possible and in a manner that’s appropriate: no J-roots, no airborne runners. Preparing ridges for the strawberry plants to grow in, and improving harvesting techniques. We have realized that there are low-cost cold storage solutions for the fields, so that plants and runners can be kept cool during the harvest. One idea is to select certain growers back in hot production zones, and we will build cold storage solutions. Right now, they do not try to get the temperature down in the fruit before it is packed and shipped to market, resulting in spoilage and loss. If we can make a demonstration set-up to show that this small cold storage solution saves postharvest losses and improves product quality, hopefully we’ll see some adoption of this technique.

Another area that is very important is disease management, which will increase production and lower postharvest losses. One of the other areas we have discussed with California growers, such as Isaac Rainwater of Crown Nurseries, is increasing the number of strawberry cultivars in Pakistan. We have only one cultivar currently in Pakistan, and we know that mono-cultivation is not a sustainable system. The single variety presents risk across the entire system. So, we would like to access certain germplasm for additional cultivars and start looking at what varieties might work for us, for growth in the fields and the fruit in the markets. If we can recommend two or three new varieties, we will have done well.

The biggest take-home lesson was that small interventions in the existing industry in Pakistan strawberry system will create big impact. Those small interventions go from the selection of the plants all the way up to harvesting and packaging. Definitely, there are certain areas that we’ve identified that are out of the scope of our available resources, but during our visit, we decided to look forward and seek allies in the industry who are willing to listen, willing to change practices. We will guide them, and once one or two or three adopt good techniques, others will follow. The chain reaction will start. Before this project, we did not know what the problems of the industry were. And now, we are going beyond the scope of the project to recommend whatever we can to improve strawberry production in Pakistan.

We are very thankful to Dr. Louise Ferguson and the Postharvest Technology Center for all of their help and assistance. Without her support, we would not have been able to accomplish as much as we did. As I said, we’ve gone beyond the initial scope of the project, thanks to the support and coordination here in California.

The U.S.-Pakistan Center for Advanced Studies (USPCAS) is educating and training the next generation of scientists, engineers, and policy makers through innovative academic programs crucial for Pakistan’s development in agriculture and food security. Through applied research, academia-industry collaboration, and policy formation, USPCAS enhances Pakistan’s economic growth and prosperity. USPCAS was made possible by support from the American people through United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

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Profile written by Levi McGarry.