Strawberry Crop Waiting on Warm Weather

The Recorder, June 6, 2017, by Richie Davis

Strawberry fields, whenever?

All of those unseasonably chilly, largely cloudy and rainy days have been wreaking havoc on farmers whose soggy fields are filled with plenty of green berry plants that should be a week or two farther along than they are.

A couple of weeks may be nothing among friends, yet it’s making for anxious days because of the connection between bountiful strawberry crops ripening in time for Father’s Day festivities most years.

“All of these church suppers and all these events are planned as if America has everything available all the time,” said a laughing Nathan Nourse of Nourse Farms in Whately. He needs to come up with 50 to 60 quarts of berries to top the shortcake as the star attraction of a typically sold out annual June 15 Strawberry Shortcake Supper at Whately Congregational Church — even though his farm’s 12 acres of strawberries were looking still pretty green on Tuesday.

“Father’s Day is usually the peak for berries,” he said. “It looks like we’re going to be short for Father’s Day. I don’t expect to see a red berry until Monday or Tuesday of next week on our farm.”

As he spoke Tuesday, temperatures were hovering in the low 50s around Greenfield, with the kind of scattered rain that dumped nearly 10 inches over the past month. In fact, last year the daytime highs in Greenfield from the latter half of May into June ranged into the 80s and hit 97. This year the daytime highs ranged as low as 50 and in June the highest daytime temperature has been 73.

The forecast is for more sunshine, dryer conditions and temperatures over the next few days, warming to the 80s and 90s by the start of next week. But soil temperatures have been only in the 50s, the farmer guesses, and air temperatures have been in the 50s and 60s. Temperatures need to be in the 70s by day and 65 at night, with soil temperatures getting to 60 to 65 for those berries to turn from green to red.

Nourse has begun talking with Connecticut growers — a first, in his memory — “just in case” he needs to bring in berries for the church supper but says he hopes to be able to get enough picked here just in time for the 15th.

There’s what he figures is a “99 percent chance” he will get those to the Whately church, with more late next week going to Foster’s, Hager’s, Green Fields Market and Stop & Shop in Greenfield.

“We’re going to have a pile of strawberries when they hit,” Nourse said.

Father’s Day is typically peak time for strawberry picking, and Clifford Hatch at Uppingil Farm says he hopes to open that weekend for you-pick on his two acres, up in Gill.

“That makes for terrific business if we could make it happen,” said Hatch, who has seen the season starting as early as the first of June in some recent years.

Hatch expects his strawberries to be on his stand for retail sale by the middle of next week.

“It would be nice to have things dry up and turn sunnier,” he said. “It’s not looking like the perfect start this year.”

Richardson’s Candy Kitchen in Deerfield also counts on those huge, juicy berries about a week before Father’s Day to smother in chocolate for holiday sales, as well as teacher gifts at graduation parties and picnics.

“We’ve had a lot of inquiries from customers calling this season,” said owner Kathie Williams, who usually gets a couple of hundred quarts of berries from the Teddy Smiarowski Farm in Hatfield. “The biggest day is the Saturday before Father’s Day. People wait all year for them. We only do it for two weeks.”

She was still waiting to hear Tuesday afternoon when she would be able to get those berries, which she likes to get beginning June 10.

“Last year was so rainy that we had to skip two days,” she said. “But we’ve never gone without.”

And only local berries will do for the local chocolatier.

In Sunderland, Mike Wisseman said his Warner Farm began selling at the Amherst Farmers Market last weekend, and he expects opening his pick-your-own operation for Father’s Day weekend.

“We had some early berries that were covered up, and we picked the field and were sold out,” he said. “For the stuff now, we just need some heat and some sunshine.”

Right now, Wisseman said, he’s seeing “plenty of white-tipped” berries in the field, and he expects to begin picking for wholesale customers by the end of this week, along with berries for church strawberry suppers in Sunderland, Colrain and Ashfield.

“Most have learned to set their dates around the 20th,” he said. “We should be in pretty good shape by then. Everything looks pretty good. It’s going to be a nice crop.”

Ryan Voiland of Red Fire Farm of Montague and Granby said he also began picking some early rows of his three acres of strawberries last week — “one of the nicest blocks we’ve ever grown, very large,” with sweet, good-tasting fruit. But overall, the crop of berries is a week or so late.

The early varieties, Voiland said, are starting to ripen, whereas in other years, “they’re really cranking. It’s been wet and cool, but it’s not catastrophic.”

If the fruit was riper, it would be more prone to pathogens.

“The majority are green berries or just flowers, so they’re not as susceptible to rot,” he said, adding that the crop is also helped by having the strawberries planted in raised beds, above the water-filled furrows.

In fact, Voiland said, most crops are a week or two behind schedule this year, in part because some fields were too wet to get to for planting until mid-April.

Yet with Red Fire’s annual strawberry soiree this year planned for June 17 — at its Granby farm this year — Voiland says he’s optimistic, especially compared to last season’s dry conditions.

“I’d rather have too much water than drought,” he said.