ENC Features
12:19 pm
Fri April 12, 2013

ENC Strawberry Season Gets A Late Start

Spring is finally here… the weather is getting warmer, and strawberries are almost ripe for picking. Mid to late April is usually the start of strawberry season for our area, but some fields in eastern North Carolina are still several weeks away from being ready.  In addition to a late start, news that virus infected plants may cause a drop in the number of local strawberries has some worried.  We spoke with strawberry growers across eastern North Carolina this week to get an idea on the success of this year’s crop.

David Rowe is the owner of Sweet Carolina Farms in Pender County.  This year, they’re growing 10 acres of strawberries.  Rowe says they’ve picked a few berries this season, but the bulk of the crop will be ready in about three weeks.

 “we had unnormally cold temperatures the latter part of March what should have been in the 70’s, it was in the 30’s at night.”

For the past couple years, strawberry harvesting started early in eastern North Carolina.  But cold snaps in late March have delayed the season this year.  North Carolina is the third largest strawberry producing state in the country.  In fact, the small town of Wallace in Duplin County became known as world's largest strawberry exchange in the 1930’s.  Even the local AM radio station had the call letters WLSE for world's largest strawberry exchange. To this day, strawberries remain a popular crop.  Executive Secretary of the North Carolina Strawberry Association Debbie Wechsler estimates there are about 250 strawberry growers in our state.

 “We’re the fourth largest producer if you measure it by acreage and poundage raised. However, we are way behind the top two, which are Florida and California.  So although we are number three, we are a pretty small number three against those goliaths.”  

According to the US Department of Agriculture, strawberries generate approximately 30 million dollars annually for North Carolina.  The red fruit grows easily in the eastern part of the state because of the mild climate and sandy soil.  But for Pender County strawberry grower David Rowe, the seasonal crop is becoming less profitable and more challenging to grow every year.

 “you know, our expenses keep increasing every year and the price of berries aren’t keeping up with the increase in our expenditures.”

Strawberries on 903 is a business owned by Mike Skinner.  He says planting strawberries is a huge investment and risk.

 “You talking about from the time you plant them in October to the time you get through harvesting and everything you got 12 to 15 thousand dollars an acre invested in this crop.  And there’s potential to make some money with this crop but it’s a real challenge.”

Skinner grows only three acres of strawberries on his farm in Pitt County.  He says this year’s crop looks promising, even though it’s coming a little later in the season.

 “Years and years ago we used to never harvest any berries before the 20th of April. And now that’s what it looks like the crop is going to be available now. And the crop looks really good, it’s going to be a huge crop of berries it’s just going to be a little bit later this year.”

Three varieties of strawberries grow well in this state: Chandler, Camarosa, and Sweet Charlie.  The traditional berry grown by most farmers is Chandler.  

“that one does very well here. That’s probably the major one in our region. The one that has come in more recently and is very popular is called Camarosa. It’s a very large berry, a little bit firmer than chandler and has the advantage that it lasts longer after it’s been picked.

The sweet Charlie strawberry has a bright red color and it’s known best for bearing the first strawberries of the season.  White’s Farm, located in Craven County is growing over 3 acres of Sweet Charlie strawberries this year.  Owner Butch White says they’ve already started picking some of the berries but most won’t be ready for at least another two weeks.  In addition to a shortened season, White is facing another obstacle in producing the crop this season.  When he planted in October, he purchased his strawberry plants from a nursery in Nova Scotia.  Those plantings were found to have a virus that stunts growth and drastically decreases the yield of fruit.

“I knew something was wrong about mid-November. They weren’t growing off like they should. You know, I just put it off as maybe weather related or I didn’t do a good enough job. And then in January, I still was dissatisfied with them, I couldn’t figure out what it was.”

It was when White contacted the nursery in Canada that he realized he ended up with virus-infected plants.  White estimates they will lose about 50 percent of their profit from this year’s strawberry harvest.  According to Strawberry expert Barclay Poling with North Carolina State University, those plant’s berries are safe to eat, but the drawback is not as much fruit is produced.  This year, White will sell what strawberries he can and hope to recoup some of the loss from selling tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers and other crops grown at the farm.

 “You know, you’re not going to make it up, but you’re going to try to make it thru the season and hope for a better season next year.”

White has not heard yet if the nursery is going to provide a refund for the infected plants.  Poling says about 12 percent of the state’s 1,600 acres in strawberry production are affected by the virus-infected plants.  

Sonny Cottle is the farm manager with Cottle Farms in Faison.  They’ve been growing strawberries for 40 years.

 “we had one acre that we had covered with a row cover that we started picking last week. But the majority of the crop will come off around April the 20th here.”

Cottle Farms grows 60 acres of strawberries for distribution at local grocery stores and roadside stands.  Since they grow their own plants, their strawberry plants weren’t infected by the virus.  

 “Almost all of the strawberries produced in the state stay right here.”

Strawberry Association’s Debbie Wechsler.

 “It’s a direct market crop, a lot of our growers are selling directly to the public and only a few are wholesaling. Very few strawberries actually leave the state.”

Another way growers ensure locally grown strawberries stay in eastern North Carolina is by offering u-pick fields where people can pick your own strawberries.  William Shawn Harding is the owner of Southside Farms in Beaufort County.  

“We are built upon pick your own operations.  We have approximately three acres of strawberries and about 50 percent of those on an average year will be picked by customers themselves. The other 50 percent, we will pick ourselves and of course have for people that either don’t have time to pick or are in a hurry.”

If you decide to pick your own strawberries, Wechsler says the phrase “redder is better” is one to keep in mind.

 “They don’t ripen after they’re picked. They’re not like bananas. So there’s no point in picking them green and thinking they’re going to ripen up later.  One of the great advantages about picking strawberries is that you can pick them fully ripe and enjoy them right away.”

More North Carolina growers are making their strawberries available to supermarkets.  But before you put those strawberries in your basket, Wechsler says to check the label.

 “At the same time as the North Carolina crop is ready, there will also be crops coming in from other parts of the country. And we certainly encourage people during the North Carolina strawberry season to look closely at those labels and if during late April and May those strawberries are from somewhere else, to ask the store Hey, why don’t you have NC strawberries, we’d really love to see NC strawberries here.”

Whether you buy them from the store, or pick them from the field yourself, there are many ways to enjoy a strawberry.  Another way to celebrate the red fruit is at one of North Carolina’s many strawberry festivals.  The NC Strawberry Festival in Chadbourne NC will be held May 4th. The Carolina Strawberry Festival is going on May 10th and 11th in downtown Wallace. They’ll be another Strawberry Festival on April 27th in Clayton.  There are a variety of ways to eat your strawberries.  How about a strawberry lemonade cheesecake bar?  Or perhaps strawberry tiramisu?  You can find these North Carolina recipes and a lot of other ideas at our website, publicradioeast.org.  

"Strawberry Tiramisu”
 By: Lisa Raschke, Raleigh, NC

Ingredients
(Serves 8-10)
2 cups sugar
1 vanilla bean
6 cups fresh strawberries, washed and hulled
¼ cup water
1 8 oz. container or mascarpone or cream cheese
1 pint whipping cream
2 packages of ladyfingers (40 ladyfingers total)
Put the sugar and vanilla bean in a food processor and blend until the vanilla bean is in fine pieces and
incorporated throughout the sugar.
Combine 4 cups of strawberries, water, and ½ cup of the vanilla sugar (more or less depending on the
ripeness of the berries) in a medium sized sauce pan and heat over medium heat. Bring mixture to a
boil and reduce the heat to medium low, simmering the berries for 10-15 minutes (it should look like a
thick sauce when you are finished). Refrigerate. These two steps can be done up to a day or two in
advance.

For more recipies, visit www.ncstrawberry.org