Family operation gives strawberries head start
High-elevation nursery hardens off plants to speed production
by Jacqui Krizo
for the Capital Press
strawberries a head start
Randy Jertberg demonstrates how the trimmers discard the damaged,
small and mother strawberry plants as they count and package them.
Calif. - The dream of a Southern California 4-Her in the 1930s led
to the production of more than a quarter-billion strawberry plants
last year by Sierra-Cascade Nursery.
Randy Jertberg's late father, Joe, grew up east of Los Angeles and
raised plants and animals in 4-H. He had always wanted to create a
nursery, so with earnings from being a sailor in World War II, he
bought land and began growing fruit, including strawberries.
Jertberg graduated from California Polytechnic State University in
San Luis Obispo, he married, and he and his father founded
Sierra-Cascade Nursery Inc. in 1977. Randy moved north to higher
elevation near Susanville, Calif., to grow strawberry plants,
their main crop, and 15 years ago he moved farther north to the
Klamath Basin to grow the plants in Bonanza, Ore., and Tulelake
and Butte Valley, Calif. The Jertbergs built trim sheds in
Susanville, their corporate headquarters, Tulelake, and Ballico in
the San Joaquin Valley.
In the low-elevation San Joaquin Valley they grow planting stock.
Those plants are cold-stored, and then are planted in April at the
higher-elevation nurseries where they multiply.
We grow at high
elevations to harden off plants for early digging," Jertberg said.
"The further north, the more hours of chilling for the plants, and
the earlier you can lift (dig), the earlier the growers can plant,
and the earlier they can produce strawberries. They're picking
strawberries before Christmas."
Javier Chevez is ranch manager at Sierra-Cascade Nursery’s
Tulelake facility. About 500 people are employed at the Tulelake
trim shed from the H-2A guestworker program, about half domestics
and half from Mexico.
Last year the
Jertbergs produced more than 100 million strawberry plants in the
Klamath Basin; altogether they grew more than a quarter-billion
plants on 1,000 acres.
Strawberry plants in the nursery's program have at least a
three-year rotation with endives and grain.
In September, the Jertbergs begin to dig and clean the plants at
night because it's cooler and more humid. Randy Jertberg designed
most of the harvest equipment, which his crew built at the
company's shop in Bonanza.
Jertberg said, "The trimmers discard the small, damaged and mother
plants, trim the roots, count, package, cool and ship them mostly
to fruit growers in Southern and Central California, where they
plant them immediately to produce strawberries."
The discarded leaves and plants are composted to fertilize the
The Tulelake trim shed alone employs more than 500 people; the
Jertbergs have about 1,500 total employees during fall strawberry
John Wells, Sierra Cascade's northern ranch manager, said, "The
success of the company is a combined effort of many skilled and
talented people. Randy, along with his father, ... had very good
foresight on where the industry was headed. Sierra Cascade will
continue to be a leader in the strawberry nursery business."
Several challenges face the Sierra-Cascade Nursery business.
Jertberg said, "We used to grow garlic for 18 years, but Chinese
imports stopped that. They could deliver dehydrated garlic cheaper
than we could produce it here."
A critical threat to the operation's mint and strawberry plants is
disease control for verticilium wilt in the soil. The Jertbergs
fumigate the land, try to keep it isolated and clean, and use no
"We're losing fumigants to the environmentalists," Jertberg said.
"Bromide gas comes off the oceans. The percentage used here is so
minuscule. The Montreal Protocol's international mandate for
cleaning up the ozone is being used to get methyl bromide taken
away from us."
If the strawberry transplants get disease, the fruit growers could
lose their crop. Jertberg said Mexico does not have the same
levels of pesticide restrictions, and only a portion of the
exported fruit is tested for chemical presence.
Another major challenge is finding legal, dependable labor. Three
years ago Jertberg began the H-2A guestworker program. His company
spent more than a million dollars for the extra payroll and
associated costs, and it pays a minimum of $9.94 per hour. He
said, "Attorney expenses are a major part of the expense defending
SCN from groups dedicated against a guestworker program."
They company recruits, feeds and houses the workers, and it
transports them to and from Mexico.
"The H-2A program demands that we hire domestics first, and the
employer is essentially prohibited by law to investigate the
domestic workers' legality," Jertberg said. "This year we got over
100 workers from the Oregon unemployment department. Because of
poor screening, they even sent us felons. Many referrals were
hired, but we now have less than five left. They quit primarily
because they didn't want to do that kind of hard work."
Now Sierra-Cascade's labor manager recruits all year in Mexico,
finding farm workers happy to get jobs up here to have a better
"I'm excited about the program," Jertberg said. "It's an honorable
way for them to work legally, a great opportunity. Our harvest
crew is about half from Mexico, half domestics, and we do all we
can to make sure they are legal."
Since strawberries are all hand-picked on 30,000 acres in
California, it is an important industry. Jertberg said, "If we
have no dependable labor, and no legal fumigation methods to
prevent diseases, we would probably be out-competed by countries
like Mexico that do not have similar restrictions."