Carolina strawberries a little short

North Carolina strawberries experienced unprecedented winter cold, and through mid-May, it appeared yield would be reduced as a result.

Charles Tart of Tart’s Strawberry and Produce Farm, of Dunn, N.C., near Raleigh, said his berries had experienced nearly two months of extreme cold right before the season started.

“We had never had a period of cold like that,” he said.

When the crop bloomed it looked good, but cold weather made all the crowns come out in three or four weeks instead of 12.

“Then the early heat started setting runners. The plants went into a vegetative state, and yields are not going to be what they should be.”

The 2010 crop had sold quite well through mid-May.

“Sales have been good, but we won’t have the extended season we need,” said Tart. “We normally pack through July 1, but this year it will be very short after June 1.

“It was a really good crop at the start, but as soon as it rained you could tell there was going to be some weakness.”

The strawberry crop in western North Carolina was also looking very good in mid-May, said Andy Myers, crop research manager at the North Carolina Research Station at Salisbury, N.C.

“But we will have a short season because of all the cold weather. It affected fruit set. We picked a lot of fruit at one time, and now there is not a lot left.”

Of the two most popular varieties, Camarosa, an early variety, was about finished. “We usually get four or five weeks, but we didn’t with this crop.”

Chandler, also an early variety, had peaked by mid-May and was going down. “In good weather, we would expect it to produce eight weeks,” Myers said. “But five or six weeks is probably all we will get this season. It is definitely declining now, but the quality is excellent.”

In fact, the 2010 crop is one of the better quality crops Myers has seen in years. “That is probably because we had a very good spring season,” he said. “It didn’t get terribly hot very often.”

In Virginia, as of April 30, strawberries were ripe in Tidewater and the Southside, and in central Virginia were expected to ripen by Mothers Day.

The crop was excellent, said Elaine Lidholm, spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “Berries this year are of very high quality with an excellent flavor,” she said. “The heavy snow last winter acted as a blanket to keep the plants warm, and growers report an abundance of blooms.”

Strawberries like cool weather and the relatively cool spring was good for color and taste, she added.

The prospects continue to be good for strawberry sales.

Strawberries are the most popular fresh-market berry in the United States and rank fifth among fresh-market fruits, following bananas, apples, oranges, and grapes, according to a recent report from the USDA Economic Research Service. Per capita fresh strawberry consumption already exceeds that of peaches (including nectarines) and grapefruit.

Domestic fresh strawberry demand has trended upwards with average annual consumption estimated at six pounds per person from 2005 to 2009, almost double the average during the early 1990s.

Per capita strawberry consumption in this country has risen consecutively over the last eight years, and in 2009 it reached an estimated seven pounds per person for the very first time in 2009.

The trend goes back even further. Over the past two decades, annual per capita consumption of fresh strawberries in the U.S. has been trending up. Strawberries are now the fifth most popular fresh fruit in the country after bananas, apples, grapes and oranges, said the report.

Another solid marketing vehicle for strawberries is the frozen strawberry market, which serves as a residual market, said the report. Demand for frozen strawberries has remained fairly steady over the past decade, with annual consumption averaging between one and two pounds per person.

Among other berry crops in the Carolinas:

• In the White Lake area of southeastern North Carolina., a center of blueberry production, the blueberry crop is behind.

• Caneberries will probably be excellent in the Piedmont, said Myers. For those crops — raspberries, blackberries and dewberries — this has been a more normal year.

“These berries are more dormant in cold weather,” Myers said. “So the early cold didn’t affect them as much.”

• The blueberry crop in the Piedmont looked very good too. “It has a tremendous fruit load,” Myers said.

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