New Bern, NC – Strawberry season came early to eastern North Carolina this year . And the fields are ripe for picking. Executive Secretary for the North Carolina Strawberry Association Debby Wechsler says the mild winter and a warm spring with few cold snaps have contributed to the early harvest.
"Most growers say they haven't seen it this early since they can last remember. It is an unusual situation."
Early May is usually the start of the strawberry picking season for our area. But Wechsler says the Strawberry Association is trying to get the word out that the strawberries are ready to be picked now.
"we don't know whether early means they're all going to come in at once. We don't know if it's just going to be a long season and it just started earlier and just end at the normal time. Or is it going to stop early. We just don't know yet. And it really depends on what the weather is like over the next few weeks."
It's still a waiting game but if last year's numbers are any indication, things look good. In 2011, North Carolina ranked third in the nation, behind California and Florida, in strawberry production. Strawberries are a natural for this area as they are relatively easy to grow here because of the mild climate and soil.
"Sandier soils really are something better suited for strawberries and I think probably it's the major production area in the coastal plain and eastern Piedmont of North Carolina."
Three varieties of strawberries grow well in this state; Chandler, Camarosa, and Sweet Charlie. The traditional berry grown by most farmers is Chandler.
"Growers have been growing them since the 1980s and it originally came from California and they no longer grow it there but it grows very well here. That's probably the major one in our region. The one that's come in recently is called Camarosa. It's a very large berry a little firmer than Chandler and has the advantage that it lasts longer after its picked."
The Sweet Charlie strawberry has a bright red color and it's known best for bearing the first strawberries of the season. The season only lasts several weeks but it brings in about 25 million dollars annually for farmers in North Carolina. But the financial gain is not why strawberry farmer Sue Leggett says she's in the business.
"We grow strawberries as a way to connect local consumers to their food. If it wasn't for that fact of being able to visit with the local folks to every once in a while get to tell our farming story and tell them whats going on at the farm, we probably wouldn't do it."
We tried to contact several local strawberry farmers, but our phone calls weren't returned probably because they were out in the fields. We did get in touch with Sue Leggett who owns and manages Airport U-Pick Strawberry Farm near the Rocky Mount-Wilson Airport. It's been in operation for about three decades. She took over operations of the farm back in 2005 with her husband Brent.
"Customers can come out and pick their own strawberries but we do also pick them fresh every morning so people who are not able to pick strawberries or people who don't have time to get out there and pick their own, we already have some picked."
There are many strawberry farms in eastern North Carolina that sell their strawberries at stands or allow people to walk around in the field and pick their own. North Carolina Strawberry Association Executive Secretary Debby Wechsler recommends getting them now.
It's so much better to get the local strawberries in season. You know, take your kids to the farm or make three or four trips during the season and pick exactly the ones you want. It just makes them taste a whole lot better and in truth, they're much riper, they're much fresher if you just pick them."
Even though strawberries are as sweet as candy, they are very good for you. Packed with Vitamin C, this superfood has anti-inflammatory properties and can improve blood sugar regulation. Airport U-Pick owner Sue Leggett has some tips on finding the perfect strawberry.
"There are so many good strawberries out there. They don't have to be perfectly sized or shaped. But what you're looking for is one that is bright, beet red all over and gently pick it from the plant and take it home and make it your own however you prefer to eat them."
There are many ways to prepare strawberries. You can make them into jams or jellies, pies or you can freeze them for later. Personally, I like them with sugar. But there are more creative ways to indulge in this springtime treat. How about a Strawberry Lemonade Cheesecake Bar? You find this recipe and a lot of other ideas at our website, publicradioeast.org.
STRAWBERRY-LEMONADE CHEESECAKE BARS
Type of Recipe: Shortcakes and Trifles
List of Ingredients:
For Lemon Bar:
2 cups of all purpose flour
1 cup powdered sugar
2 sticks butter
2 cups granulated sugar
6 Tbsp. all purpose flour
6 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
For No-Bake Strawberry Cheesecake:
2 8 oz pkgs of cream cheese
1 pint heavy cream
3-1/2 cups local strawberries, (3 cups mashed & 1/2 cup sliced)
1 pkg gelatin
1-1/2 cups granulated sugar, divided
Sprinkle of cinnamon
1/4 tsp. vanilla
1/2 cup homemade or local strawberry jam
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9 x 13 x 2 inch pan. Combine flour, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Cut in butter to make a crumbly mixture, use hands to knead into dough and press into bottom of pan evenly. Bake for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, mix the eggs, sugar, flour, and lemon juice and zest with a whisk. Pour over baked crust and bake for 25 more minutes. Allow to cool. Now mash 3 cups of strawberries and cook on Medium High heat. Add 1 cup sugar and cook stirring for a few minutes until comes to a boil. Add package of gelatin and stir to dissolve a few more minutes. Transfer to blender and puree till smooth. Allow to cool to room temperature. Pour the cheesecake into a medium bowl, beat cream cheese till soft. Slowly add heavy cream, continue to beat. Add strawberry puree slowly and 1/2 cup sugar until mixed well. Pour over top of lemon bars in pan and allow to chill overnight or 4 hours ahead. Cut bars into squares, toss sliced strawberries with strawberry jam and arrange on top of squares. Makes 16 squares.
Liza Zaytoun - Raleigh, NC. First Place Winner 2011 State Farmers Market Strawberry Dessert Contest