Strawberry fields (not forever) show it’s time to savor summer’s sweetness
MassLive, June 28, 2020. By Cynthia G. Simison | firstname.lastname@example.org
As spring began its slow debut back in late March and early April, I started taking weekend drives through the countryside of Hampshire and Franklin counties as a reminder that life was continuing on amid the coronavirus pandemic.
A cool and wet spring meant the shades of green were simply spectacular in the trees and fields as farmers began planting their crops. My peaceful meanderings helped soothe my soul.
By May, the valley’s first asparagus reassured me Mother Nature was doing her job even as our collective confinement wore on. One thing was missing, though. Each weekend that I stopped at my favorite farm in Hatfield, the family matriarch wasn’t there to greet me as I picked up my asparagus from the self-serve stand.
I fretted a bit, checked the farm’s Facebook page and, finally, in late May found a photograph of a smiling Eleanor Smiarowski, standing beside a beautiful blooming rhododendron. Ah, I thought, all is well.
For as long as I can remember, our family’s tradition was to get our strawberries at Teddy C. Smiarowski Farms on Main Street in North Hatfield. My mother never went anywhere except “Teddy’s” to buy the berries we’d savor or the ones she would use for community dinners she’d plan for one organization or another.
When I moved back to the family homestead in Northampton in 2002, I picked up the tradition where my late parents had left off. I introduced myself to Eleanor, told her the family history and we got to know each other as we enjoyed a visit each weekend during asparagus and berry season.
This year’s first strawberries appeared for sale at Smiarowski’s two weeks ago, and, so, too, did Eleanor, if only from the safety of her back porch. She stays inside, and I stay on the lawn with my mask to talk for a bit during our visits these days. Her grandchildren have taken on the duty of selling the picked berries culled from their fields in Hatfield and Whately that are sold from one of the farm’s garages.
Bernie Smiarowski, one of Eleanor’s sons who have headed the farm operations since their father’s death, says the cool, damp spring meant many crops, from asparagus to strawberries, arrived for picking later than usual. Now, though, the berries are a bumper crop and may, due to the lack of rain, have a shorter than usual season.
“With this heat, they’re ripening really quickly,” he told me on Wednesday. “We’ve got six or seven different varieties, and the latest variety is ripening and ready for picking. I think it’s going to be a real quick harvest, unfortunately, because they’re all coming at once.”
Their pick-your-own fields are along Routes 5 and 10 in Whately. Smiarowski says it’s relatively easy for farmers to accommodate pick-your-own customers in these days of COVID-19 safety regulations. “We give people a large area to pick, and all our employees wear masks. We’re doing our part to do social distancing,” he explains.
Indeed, one new Facebook fan reported picking more than 15 pounds of glorious berries earlier this week, posting, “I had two rows for picking all to myself. No one within several rows. Just a few people, and all were spread out.”
All told, the Smiarowskis’ 10 acres of strawberry fields will yield a harvest of about 60,000 quarts. While some will head to retailers, Bernie Smiarowski says his family is finding “with the COVID-19, a lot of people are venturing out directly out to farms and farmstands. It’s good for all of us.”
His family will get a clearer view of how COVID-19 affects their farm’s revenues later in the year as they go to harvest their 700 acres of potatoes and take them to a market which still has a glut of potatoes in storage from last season, the result of the loss of institutional and restaurant use as a result of the coronavirus. “It remains to be seen on potato pricing,” he explained, adding that their potatoes head to the “fresh market” that has not fared as badly as the institutional food service market.
There is no way around it, though, according to Phil Korman, head of CISA, the Deerfield-based Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture non profit that works with local farmers. No one’s been spared from the wrath of COVID-19.
Schools and restaurants, he says, “Those two, together, in the valley are important sources of sales and marketing for our region’s farmers.” When public schools, colleges and restaurants were shuttered in March, it meant the region’s farmers had to pivot and respond immediately. “They had harvests ready to sell, whether it was maple syrup, cheeses, honey or root vegetables,” Korman explains. “They still had work to do.”
He says many quickly responded, joining collaborative efforts, to offer customers access to local farm products. Mycoterra Farm, which grows mushrooms in Deerfield, began Mass Food Delivery (massfooddelivery.com), while a group of farmers organized the Sunderland Farm Collaborative, (sunderlandfarmcollaborative.localfoodmarketplace.com). Both offer online ordering of local produce and foods, ranging from cheese and milk to meats and vegetables.
“They’re not competing, and between them are delivering to well over 1,500 households a week,” Korman says. “When you think about what did it take to do that, it’s very impressive.” Organizing an online purchasing system, getting a fleet of vehicles to deliver, developing routes and packing the foods required fast thinking, to say nothing of ingenuity.
It lends a lot of credence to CISA’s “Local Hero” depiction of farmers in the Pioneer Valley.
As the COVID-19 restrictions have eased, Korman says, some of the region’s farmers’ markets have opened and are welcoming increasing business each week. It helps make up for the losses many sustained when the virus prompted the shutdown of the winter farmers’ markets.
Buying locally grown food, Korman says, has so many more benefits than just helping sustain the region’s agricultural economy. “There’s something special about sharing the delight, nutrition and beauty of what’s coming from our farmers,” he says.
Those still wary of going to a farmers’ market or a farmstand, Korman says, do have options, like purchasing a farmshare, ordering online for home delivery or curbside pickup from one of the collaboratives or from farms which offer the option. And, of course, the pick-your-own opportunity is pretty special, he adds. “It’s a very safe way to pick the harvest and bring it home to enjoy with your family.”
We’re so fortunate to have access to fresh fruits and vegetables growing up and down our fertile valley. While strawberries may be gone in another few weeks, each day brings something new to market. I’m looking forward later in July for wild blueberries at Sussman’s Farm in West Granville, and come August Outlook Farm in Westhampton will be offering sweet peaches, plums and nectarines from their orchards.
Retail markets from small businesses like Randall’s in Ludlow and Atkins Farms in Amherst to Big Y Foods markets everywhere make it easy for us all to have access to freshly grown produce and farm-made foods that’s local and good for us, too. It’s a way each of us can be a “Local Hero” and stay healthy amid the pandemic.
Cynthia G. Simison is executive editor of The Republican. She may be reached by email to email@example.com.