North Carolina strawberries bounce back from 2007

Strawberry growers in North Carolina generally had smiles on their faces as the season for their product neared its end at the beginning of June.

“We had a good year,” said Myron Smith of Benson N.C. “The weather was really cool. That is good for strawberries. We didn’t have a single 90-degree day in May (though it reached 89 degrees the last day of the month). This was the first May in 15 years that we didn’t have at least one 90 degree day.

“We had some rainy days, and that is not particularly good for this crop,” said Smith. “But it worked out. The flavor may not have been as good because of the temperatures. But our strawberries were mostly disease free.”

Harvest began slightly earlier than average, he said. “We started April 9. April 12 would be normal for us.”

On May 31, he hoped he could continue harvesting until close to June 15. But the next day, the thermometer reached 90.

“The season will extend a little deeper into June, but it will come to a screeching halt as soon as the weather gets hot every day,” he said when he spoke to Southeast Farm Press at the North Carolina Farmers Market in Raleigh.

Days where the temperature reaches 90-degrees or higher really stunt strawberries, said Kevin Hardison, North Carolina Department of Agriculture marketing specialist. “Warm temperatures bring them on and make them sweet, but 90 degree and higher temperatures begin to cook them in the fields.”

Hardison said the North Carolina strawberry crop might make it to the first full weekend in June but probably not much later. “Farmers hope the crop will keep producing because an extended season is when a lot of growers make their money.”

Still, this crop was unquestionably a good one, he said. “It was a good comeback from the 2007 crop, when frost reduced production.”

Hardison didn’t have a firm estimate for acreage planted in strawberries but expected it would prove to be between 1,600 to 1,700 acres, comparable to last year.

Hardison didn’t have a yield estimate either, but said both would be higher than in 2007, when farmers produced 12,500 pounds per acre.

North Carolina farmers for the most part enjoyed a fairly mild winter and a fairly cool spring, said Hardison. Both would be expected to favor good production.

“There were some nights when frost protection was needed, but the late winter weather was not as destructive as it has been in some recent years,” he said.

Deliveries got going early at the North Carolina Farmers Market in Raleigh, between April 5 and April 10, said Ronnie Best, manager of the market, at the end of May. “That was strawberries in the field. We had a few greenhouse strawberry deliveries in March. In earliness, I would call the crop average to a little early.”

The quality of the crop was a little down because of cold temperatures in April. That meant there was not as much flavor as there might have been, said Best.

Strawberries are a major component in Myron Smith’s farming and nursery operation. He sells many of his strawberries on a pick-your-own basis. He harvests much of the remainder himself and sells it at the state farmers market.

This year, he found a new retailing opportunity: A new farmers’ market was held on Saturdays during the season at a Raleigh shopping mall. Smith said this market provided a different set of customers than what he gets at the state market and that it was a successful venture for him.

“All our marketing efforts paid off this year,” said Smith. “We probably averaged $3.50 a quart at the farmers market and closer to $4 at the mall.”

He also offers field trips and agritourism at his farm. Besides four acres of strawberries, he also grows spring onions, cantaloupes, squash, cabbage, and a few blueberries and blackberries.

His nursery business — called Smith Nurseries — is the largest component of his operation. He sells various nursery products, including shrubs and trees.

The great majority of North Carolina strawberry farms continue to use the plasticulture method. Plants are set out into black plastic mulch in the fall of the year. Irrigation and some fertilization are supplied through "drip tape" laid under the plastic at the time of planting.

The plants continue to grow during warmer periods during the fall and winter. In late winter and early spring they start to grow in earnest.

Though strawberries are perennial, plasticulture strawberries are grown as annuals. Harvest begins only seven to eight months after planting, and new plants are set out every year.

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