ENC Strawberry Season Gets An Early Start

Apr 17, 2017

Credit North Carolina Strawberry Association

Spring means strawberry season is upon us.  It should be a solid season for North Carolina strawberries. Some farmers are even getting an early start.  Chris Thomas has more.

The weather in eastern North Carolina is notoriously fickle – something farmers like Steve McLawhorn are acutely aware of. He’s co-owner of Strawberries on 903 in Winterville and recalls what excessive rain did to his crop last year on his 3 acre farm.

“We had an excellent crop and Mother’s Day week, probably one-fourth of our season, we had seven days straight of rain, so when you have that much rain, we had to just hire a huge force of people go in and pull berries that were too ripe off the plant because when you leave those berries on there, the plant kind of shuts down and also that berry goes bad and anything touching them does.”

Five months later in the fall strawberry planting season began just as Hurricane Matthew brought major flooding to the region. A mid-March freeze after a mild winter caused a scare.

But despite a rough offseason, McLawhorn is feeling upbeat about this year’s prospects. He says there’s about $12,000 worth of strawberries yearly in each crop.   

“Our normal season we start picking around the 15th-20th of April, so we’re three weeks earlier than we’ve ever been.”

The early season also excites Rich White, who owns White Farms on U.S. 17 between Vanceboro and New Bern.

“We’ve got a lot of blooms forming right now. So I’m looking, 30 days from now, we’ll have another flush of fruit.”

White had a tough year last harvest since El Nino dumped mass amounts of water across the eastern United States throughout the growing season between October and March.  Last fall Hurricane Matthew hit and the subsequent flooding did too.

“Well we had just planted our strawberries. They’d been in the ground – probably, I think about seven days – and the wind blew, you know, so we had to go back and go through the field and reset our berries and all.”

Though they’re susceptible to the elements like any other crop, strawberries grow low to the ground and are easier to protect. Covering called Plasticulture is used during the off season. While some farmers may struggle, North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Representative Dexter Hill believes strawberry farmers are, for the most part, in the clear.  He’s based in Kinston and works with local farmers.

“We had really warm weather in February followed by extreme cold weather in March but…North Carolina growers are very well prepared to protect their crops from cold weather by using row covers and overhead irrigation and they came through the cold snap pretty (well).”

In contrast, blueberry farmers – who also have a presence in eastern North Carolina – are facing a much bleaker prospect. Blueberries grow on high bushes instead of up from the ground like strawberries. When the cold snap came, Hill said there was precious little farmers could do to protect them.

“And the wind, in combination of the freezing weather – freezing temperatures – created an environment where they were really having a hard time frost protecting over the top of the blueberry bushes. So, some of the nozzles were freezing up, the wind was blowing the water around and so they did suffer some damage.”

Strawberries bring in more than $20 million to the state’s economy but strawberry farms are usually smaller operations than the state’s bigger cash crops, like sweet potatoes and soy beans.  Many strawberry farms have a “U-Pick” component where patrons pick the crop at the source and pay for the haul, usually by the pound. Most of those strawberries stay in the communities where they were picked.

“The majority of the North Carolina berries and what sets them apart is – and what makes them unique – is the fact that they’re direct market, so you get the strawberry…even when you go into a retail outlet, if it’s a North Carolina label that means it was probably picked the last 24 hours.”  

Rich White’s farm runs exclusively on the U-Pick model, at $1.65 per pound. He says it cuts down on the biggest headache he had with commercial farming: labor and the tight deadlines for commercial buyers.

“Most of my deadlines for having the strawberries picked and delivered was 1 o’clock that afternoon. So we had to pick early in the morning, get them packaged and get them delivered by 1 o’clock…my order would be between 1,000 and 1,500 quarts.”

Whether you purchase local strawberries from the store, farmers market, or you pick them yourself, now is the time to get them. Summer is coming that means the end of the harvest season.   That’s not to mention what may happen if summer comes in too hot, too quickly, especially when considering the plastic covers that usually protect the crop from the cold and the rain.

“Normally, we can go through May, sometimes the first of June. The hindrance on the end of the season is it getting too hot. The berries just won’t last in the field when it gets too hot on that plastic. The plastic heats them up in the spring when it’s cool but it hurts you a little bit when it gets hotter.”

CT: About how hot is too hot for these kind of berries?

“In the 90s for several days.”

Its coming is inevitable, so you may want to get out there and pick some.  The North Carolina Strawberry Association has a map of u-pick strawberry farms here in eastern North Carolina.  Go to http://ncstrawberry.com/farm-locator