N.C. strawberry farmers challenged by Mother Nature

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The strawberry season is in full swing in May across much of North Carolina. High yields in a shortened time-frame pose significant challenges to growers. Due to a major shift in climatic conditions this year, the season has started later than usual, according to Barclay Poling, Ph.D., executive director of the N.C. Strawberry Association. “It’s anyone’s guess on how long the season will last. We’re seeing unprecedented volume during the first week,” said Poling. “It is a phenomenon we haven’t seen before.”

“It’s shaping up to be a great crop,” Poling explained, “but it is posing major challenges for our state’s farmers. The plants are absolutely loaded with fruit and what we’re beginning to see in the eastern part of the state (where the season starts first) is that the berries are ripening all at once rather than gradually over a period of time.”

“What is happening in the eastern part of the state is expected to play out statewide,” explained Poling. “A typical weekly 2,000 pounds per acre yield will escalate to 5,000 to 6,000 pounds by mid-May, if not higher,” he explained. “Farmers need people to get out to you-pick farms and pick berries! Any time is great to pick during the month but Mondays through Wednesdays are always optimal times and less busy than weekends.”

Reports from consumers who have had some of the first berries of the season are that they are especially good this year, sweeter and tastier, which Poling believes can be attributed to the cooler temperatures.                                      

The N.C. Strawberry Association, which represents about 400 growers in the state and a nearly $21 million industry, is hoping people will get out to local you-pick operations to stock up on this incredible fruit this year. Many farmers (check with your local farm) are offering a “pick 4 buckets pay for 3” deal and encouraging customers to give the free bucket to someone in need. Toward that end, the Association has started an initiative called “Short & Sweet Strawberry Share 2014.” It is encouraging church and work groups, families and friends to make strawberry picking a fun outing and to give their free bucket to a local food pantry, soup kitchen, day care center, nursing home or other place or person of need.

“We have a bumper crop coming on,” said Mitchell Wrenn, a farmer in Zebulon, North Carolina, who serves as president of the N.C. Strawberry Association. In a normal year, we couldn’t afford to give berries away but we’re going to lose berries. I’d rather give to someone in need, someone who is handicapped or in a nursing home so they can enjoy these delicious berries. They just don’t compare to the ones you find in the grocery store. They have so much more flavor.”

Wrenn frequently provides produce from his farm to a local nursing home and knows the appreciation people have for good food. He is hoping consumers will get in on this opportunity to help a local farmer and give back to someone in need by picking an extra bucket for them. It would be a shame, he says, for much of this crop to remain in the field when so many people could benefit from these delicious berries.

“Most strawberry farms in the state are family operations. They are trying to make a living for their families while providing good, fresh local food,” said Poling. “They’ve produced an excellent crop but Mother Nature has dealt them a difficult situation. We’re hoping consumers will realize that the taste and flavor of local berries just can’t be beat and will get out on the farm and pick berries with family and friends.”

To learn more about “Short & Sweet Strawberry Share 2014,” visit the N.C. Strawberry Association website at www.ncstrawberry.com. Visit the NC Strawberry Facebook page (www.facebook.com/ncstrawberry ) and post a photo of your experience. Be sure to include a caption with your name, farm where you are picking, the charity you donated the berries to along with their phone number. Be sure to “Like” our page. The winning post will receive a $500 cash prize and an invitation to the Southeast Strawberry Expo at the Pinehurst Resort in Pinehurst, N.Carolina (Nov. 17–19, 2014).

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