The Redder the Better

When Jamie Barnhill’s Kindergarten class from Forest View Elementary School visited Waller Family Farm in Durham last week, farmer Mark Waller took a few minutes to teach the kids how to pick. And they listened, because at the end, when he asked them what was the rule for picking, they all answered in chorus, “The redder the better!”

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It’s a simple rule that  grown ups should heed, too. Mark even has it posted at the entrance to the strawberry patch. It’s actually not all that easy making sure the berries are fully red– the shadows of the leaves, the glare of the sun, the contrast on the plastic mulch makes color deceptive. And strawberries have an annoying habit of being nice and red on the upper side and still pink on the underside.

To make it even more complicated, varieties differ as to what is “ripe red”.  Of the three major cultivars grown in North Carolina,  red-ripe Sweet Charlie is a lighter and brighter red than a Chandler strawberry; a Camarosa is not fully ripe until it is a deep, dark red. Pick it like a Chandler, and it can be disappointing; pick it ripe and it has great flavor. Growers have a hard time convincing even their professional pickers to leave these berries on the plant until fully ripe. Here’s another oddity: Chandler berries tend to ripen first near the stem and last at the tip; some of the current California varieties ripen at the tip first, and tend to have white shoulders.

Strawberries will turn red after they are picked — you can see it happen in the bowl on your kitchen counter — but they will never get any sweeter than the day they were picked. One of the great advantages of buying local and picking your own berries is that you know they have truly ripened in the field.

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An Invitation to the Direct Market Dance

ImageWould you care to dance? You’ve got to have both the boys and the girls, both the gentlemen and the ladies, there on the dance floor and willing to dance, so everyone has a good time, swirling around to the music.

ImageIn this dance between farmers and consumers, Mother Nature plays a big role in starting the music and determining how fast it plays. This year, the crop is several weeks late– and last year, it was unusually early. If you think of the farmers as the guys and the consumers as the ladies, this year, lots of eager consumers have been standing around waiting for the music to start, and for the guys to show up (with their hands full of strawberries).  Then, in the last couple weeks, just as the guys finished tying their shoes and straightening their ties, the weather has been grey and chilly, just not what the ladies wanted for the wonderful outdoor ball, and many of them stayed home. Pretty soon, the weather will be warming up, the crop will be peaking, and the ladies will need to bring all their cousins and little sisters to this fine strawberry waltz. 

It is a dance and a compact: I am your farmer, I grow for you. We are in this together. And we have to dance right through whatever the weather brings us. If consumers don’t come out, farmers can’t stay in business. If farmers don’t stay in business, consumers won’t be able to get locally grown strawberries and to enjoy the experience of taking their families to the farm.

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So here are my recommendations: Learn when strawberries get ripe in your area, at farms near you. Know that it is different every year, at each farm. Recognize that strawberries ripen all week long, not just on the weekend, and take advantage of mid-week picking. Come out to the farm even when it’s cloudy or misty, it’s different, kind of magical and moody. When the harvest peaks, and there are more berries than anyone knows what to do with, use that opportunity to fill you freezer and to bring some to the daycare and the nursing home, and tell all your friends. Help your farm, and help yourself!

 

 

When are strawberries going to be ready?

ImageThat’s the question everyone is asking!  In general, the answer is that the start of this year’s season is expected to be “normal”, or maybe a little late.  And a general recommendation is to  contact the farm where you pick or buy your fruit to find out the specifics of when their berries will be ready.

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Frost protection in March 2013.

The later season is mostly because of all the cold weather we had in March.  Growers did a lot of work putting on and taking off row covers, or lost a good bit of sleep running their irrigation to protect against frost, and it was just plain COLD.

It’s good to remember that last year was an exceptionally early crop, with berries getting ripe maybe ten days to two weeks earlier than what we will see this year. Warm weather these last few days is certainly helping everything catch up.

Strawberry harvest is like a wave. The harvest season starts first in warmer areas —  Florida is already finishing up, south Georgia growers started in March, and growers in the eastern South Carolina and southeastern North Carolina are starting now. This wave then sweeps both north and west, with Piedmont growers starting mid- to late April, and western NC growers often in early May.

ImageHarvest is also like a wave in that it starts out small– just a few berries here and there– builds to a peak, and then trails off at the end. When it is tidal wave of berries, as it was a couple of years ago, when for many farms, the peak of harvest came just a week or two after they opened– it is a real challenge!  Word for this year from our NCSU strawberry specialist Dr. Barclay Poling, is that the peak of the crop looks “perfectly well timed for Mothers Day weekend.”

Pulling row covers over the plants.

Pulling row covers over the plants.

Every farm is different– and its harvest time will depend on many factors: the micro-climate of the fields, which varieties are planted, when they were planted, and how the plants have been cared for during the fall, winter and spring. Using row covers, especially if the plants are covered up all winter, pushes the plants along.

If you aren’t sure of a farm near you, check out the maps at our handy Farm Locator. You can either search by county/state, or use the Google map to focus in on a specific area. It’s time to warm up your taste buds!

A Strawberry Recipe Heritage

My friend Judy brought a strawberry  congealed salad to a party a few weeks ago, and I thought it was the best congealed salad I’d ever had — very fresh-strawberry flavored, and not too sweet. It was a big hit with everyone, and new to many of us.  Judy said she’d put up lots of great local strawberries in her freezer this spring, so this was a good way to use them, and that she got the recipe from her Aunt Ruby Beeson, her mother’s sister, many, many years ago.

I asked her for the recipe, and then found out that the same recipe was already in the NC Strawberry Association’s online recipe collection, from Strawberry Hill U.S.A., a member strawberry farm in Chesnee, SC. In a quick online check for photos, I found this same recipe several times, often with comments: “I got this recipe from my mother-in-law many years ago”  and “Our family gatherings wouldn’t be the same without this classic gelatin salad”  and “My grandmother used to make this salad for Christmas gatherings.” It looks like this recipe first showed up in the late 1950s and was very popular in the 1960s, gracing the tables  of church socials and family gatherings, and collected into community cookbooks and family recipe files.

This dish has a beautiful, jewel-like color (you can see why it is a hit for Christmas), and is sweet enough to enjoy as a dessert, while still tasting fresh and  salad-like. It is a great use for strawberries that you have put in your freezer, but can also be made with fresh strawberries.  Other similar recipes are variations on the same theme, e.g., made with pretzels, coconut, or cream cheese, or with a crust.

Judy’s mother passed away just a few weeks later, so family and traditions have been very much on our minds. This recipe is now out among a whole new community and already gathering new memories.  Judy’s recipe is below; find this salad also in our online recipe collection.

Strawberry Congealed Salad
2 10-oz. pkgs. frozen strawberries, thawed (don’t discard the juice)
3 ripe bananas, mashed
2 3-oz. pkgs. strawberry jello (or one 6-oz. package
1 cup water (heated to boiling)
1 cup pecans, chopped
1 small can crushed pineapple, drained
1 cup sour cream

In a large bowl dissolve jello in water. Mix in strawberries, bananas, pecans and pineapple. Spread one half of the mixture as the bottom layer in a 9″ x 12″ glass pan, and put it in the freezer for 10-15 minutes. Remove from freezer. Spread sour cream in an even layer over the mixture. Spread the rest of the mixture from the bowl over the sour cream. Refrigerate for 4 hours or until set.

Strawberries in July

If you’ve been around North Carolina a while, and you like strawberries, you probably know that our harvest season for “June bearing” strawberries usually starts sometime in April, and sometimes ends disconcertingly abruptly in mid- to late May, after the weather turns hot. We frequently have to remind Northerners who have moved to the South not to let the season slip by them! This year, however, as retired NCSU Extension Horticulturist Dr. Barclay Poling commented, “was the season that simply would not quit.”

Here are a couple of pictures he took at a farm in Greensboro on the weekend of June 23-24.

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Image And here is a picture from of farmer Lee Berry in Ellerbe that was taken on July 6 — and you know it gets hot down there in the Sandhills. And I talked to another Greensboro area grower, last week (Juy 18, I think), and they are “still pcking a few.”

So what’s going on here? One thing is that these growers are trying “day neutral” Imagestrawberries — these are the variety Albion, one of the leading California varieties — that will produce all summer and in the fall. Regular “short day” strawberries initiate their flowers in the short days of the fall and winter, but these guys just keep on going.  And if conditions are favorable, the berries taste great. Other growers are experimenting with other techniques to get a fall and winter crop. So, as more growers figure out how to manage these new varieties, and if the weather cooperates, you can expect to find the NC strawberry season stretching out longer and longer. Strawberries look so good on a Fourth of July flag cake …and fit in right well for Christmas red-and-green too. And how nice if you can get them from your local strawberry grower, too!

Sweet Strawberries, after the Peak

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This picture taken at Iseley Farms in Burlington on May 11 shows lots of green fruit and flowers– berries for the coming weeks.

In her “Mouthful”  column in the May 16 issue of the Raleigh News & Observer, food writer Andrew Weigl noted that farmers at the State Farmers Market are predicting just one more week of strawberries. However, though the crop is slowing down some, it is far from over. Jim Warenda of Dean’s Farm in Wilson, one farm which sells at the market says, “Volumes have dropped but we should have berries through June 2.”  Several growers in Eastern NC have reported that plants are flowering nicely and they expect to harvest on into June. Growers from the Charlotte area and Burlington also expect to harvest into June. Folks in even cooler areas of NC and surrounding states, or who really work on an extended season may go longer. It partly depends on where the farm is, when they planted, the varieties being grown, how they managed their crop, and the other demands on the grower’s time. At the peak of the season, growers expand to many more outlets — wholesaling, selling at farmers markets, setting up more roadside stands– and then reduce these as they pass the peak, cutting back to their main sales location, often pick-your-own and a stand at the farm.

Later-season berries tend to be very sweet and flavorful. If you’ve already eaten all the fresh berries and shortcake you can, now is a good time to fill your freezer, make jam, or dry the strawberries (my current favorite).

In the NC Strawberry Association’s consumer surveys, one of the comments we often get is “the season goes by too quickly.” This year, strawberries ripened extraordinarily early, but let’s not forget to take advantage of the late-season crop, and support those growers who’ve worked hard to provide additional weeks of fresh, local berries.

The best thing to do is to give a call to farms near you and find out how their crop is and how long they expect to have strawberries. Don’t miss the opportunity. You can find our member farms and their contact information at www.ncstrawberry.com/growers.cfm .

Strawberries in China, Part 2

The International Strawberry Symposium (ISS), like the Olympics, is held ever four years. But the 7th ISS, held February 18-23 in Beijing, truly was the Olympics of strawberries. I was pleased to be there. 

The world’s strawberry community was treated to the same kind of superb organization, hospitality, and spectacle. The opening ceremonies featured an intricate and impressive combination of lightshow, music, photographic images, and dancers and one evening showcased traditional Chinese performing arts, from juggling and acrobatics to masked comic opera to plaintive songs from Inner Mongolia.  Bevies of student helpers, elegantly dressed hostesses and uniformed guards were in attendance throughout the Symposium.

This young packaging salesperson in the exhibits area said that this type of packaging was very popular.

China is now the world’s largest strawberry producer and it is proud to show off its growing strawberry industry to the rest of the world. About a thousand attendees came from 66 different countries, to hear about advances in strawberry research, learn about new varieties, network with each other, see something of China, and advance the Symposium’s goal of “Better Strawberry Happier Life”.  The scientific presentations and posters ranged from strawberry genetics to production methods around the world to health benefits research.

We also visited farms, research institutes, and a special Strawberry Exposition Garden. Built especially for this event, it showcased China’s many wild strawberry species and cultivars from all over the world, with gardens and educational exhibits that willremain  after the Symposium as an educational/park/museum destination… all strawberry!

Around Beijing, most strawberry production is in unheated solar greenhouses, with harvests December-May.  Clusters of greenhouses are grouped together and one family’s holdings is usually two greenhouses — covering one “mu”, about 1/6 acre. Not all that much to make a living on, but way better than many other crops — some of the farmers I talked to had been growing field corn on the same land.  Pick Your Own is a popular activity, and strawberries are especially desired around the time of the Chinese New Year in mid January.

The favorite varieties are very sweet, soft, and tender, quite different from what we are used to in the United States. They bruise easily and have a short shelf life, but I thought they were delicious– sweet, not very acid, and with almost a perfumy aroma.

The Symposium schedule also included a tour of the Ming Tombs and Great Wall – it was pretty amazing to see 14 buses being shepherded through highway intersections and to arrive at the Great Wall and find banners welcoming us… strawberry people aren’t used to that kind of celebrity treatment. What an opportunity to see China, and meet people from all over the world.