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Black plastic placed over raised strawberry plant beds greatly reduces weed growth. (Photo by Todd Johnson, Agricultural Communications Services)

Small-town Strawberries

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Media Contact: Jami Mattox | Agricultural Communications Services | 405-744-8061 | jami.mattox@okstate.edu

When thinking of Oklahoma, Strawberry Capital of the World may not come to mind. However, Stilwell, a small town in the Ozark foothills of eastern Oklahoma, has held the official title in the state since 1949.

Stilwell berries are known for being bright red, small, sweet, flavorful and juicy, said Jennifer Patterson, Adair County OSU Extension director. Stilwell is good for growing strawberries because of the rocky, slightly acidic soil and good drainage.

Below the ground in Stilwell lays chert rock, which breaks down into the soil and gives the Stilwell strawberries a unique taste, Patterson said.

Stilwell strawberry farmers have another advantage when it comes to producing such special strawberries.

“The Adair County OSU Extension is a resource strawberry growers can utilize for additional information to help maximize their production,” Patterson said. “We are proud to help strawberry growers learn how to market and use social media to benefit their business, as well.”

The Adair County OSU Extension office has stepped up to provide services to strawberry growers and to help with the issue of decreasing strawberry acreage.

In the early 1950s, more than 1,500 acres were used for strawberry production in Adair County, Patterson said. Today, the county averages 20 acres of commercial strawberry production annually with only seven strawberry farms.

“The strawberry growers, along with the Adair County OSU Extension staff, are exploring ideas to raise public awareness of the impact the growers have on their community,” Patterson said.

The strawberry growers use the soil- and plant tissue-testing services Adair County OSU Extension offers. After growers collect samples from the farms, the staff sends them to the OSU Plant Disease and Insect Diagnostic Lab or the OSU Soil Testing Lab in Stillwater for testing and results.

Educating growers about maximizing plant production through fertilizer levels has been a great asset for those producers, Patterson said.

Adair County OSU Extension staff also assists the Stilwell community by working with the Strawberry Growers Association, the youth berry contest, and the annual Stilwell Strawberry Festival contest and auction.

“More than 20,000 people come to the annual Stilwell Strawberry Festival,” Patterson said.

“People from the outside do not realize how much economic drive strawberry growers bring into our county. People from Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas come to buy strawberries — the audience strawberry farmers reach is impressive for our little county.”

Bobby Doyle, member of the Strawberry Growers Association and strawberry farm owner since 1957, said the Adair County OSU Extension staff members always offer a helping hand to the strawberry growers in the area. Doyle said he uses the soil testing on a regular basis.

“Without the soil fertility testing, successful growing is a shot in the dark and a hope for the best,” Doyle said.

Doyle said he is an annual participant and has competed in the Stilwell Strawberry Festival contest and auction since he started growing strawberries. His success comes from hard work, organizational skills and help from Adair County OSU Extension programs, he added.

2022 marks the 75th year for the Stilwell Strawberry Festival. Doyle said he encourages those who have not eaten a Stilwell strawberry to come and purchase a flat of berries at the festival, which occurs on the second Saturday in May each year.

“Once you taste a Stilwell strawberry, you will come back year after year,” Doyle said.

With the decreasing number of strawberry growers and the increasing numbers of festival attendees, providing enough strawberries is increasingly difficult each year, Doyle said.

“Our strawberries, unlike those in the grocery store, have a shelf life of 1 to 2 days,” said Bryce Miller, owner of Miller Farms and president of the Strawberry Growers Association. “The decrease of growers also has an impact on not having enough strawberries to sell to people visiting for the festival.”

This past year, Miller said he and his family have taken the issue into their own hands with the help of Adair County OSU Extension to raise awareness about the need for new strawberry growers.

“My family’s goal is to get youth involved with the plants,” Miller said. “Reaching one kid is one more grower than we had before.”

Miller said he donated 700 strawberry plants to local schools, 4-H clubs and FFA chapters for youth to learn how to grow strawberries. With the help of Adair County OSU Extension, the contest allows youth who produced strawberries to compete.

Wyatt Davis, sixth-grader at Zion Public Schools near Stilwell, participated in the 2021 Adair County Strawberry Contest. Davis said his favorite part of the experience was staying after school to water and cover his strawberry plants, which were located in the school garden.

“I wish to continue strawberry farming as a hobby when I get older,” Davis said.

Miller said he is excited to continue and grow this event in hopes of developing new interest in strawberry growing. Miller and his family along with Adair County OSU Extension are working to improve the event and contest for the coming years, he added.

“I want to continue to drive by the sign in town that reads Strawberry Capital of the World for many years to come,” Miller said.


Story By: Jencee Jarvis | Cowboy Journal

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