Before 11 a.m. Friday, 3-year-old Annalee Allen had accomplished her task of filling a basket with early spring strawberries. She knew a secret: that Tidewater’s strawberry crop is ripe for the picking and way ahead of schedule.
Local farmers survived a tense winter, but now have another worry – that the ripe, juicy berries might rot on the ground because Tidewater pickers start picking near the first of May.
“People who think that strawberry season doesn’t start until the first of May will miss half of the season at some farms,” said Tom Baker of Brookdale Farm, who tends fields in Chesapeake and Virginia Beach.
Southeastern Virginia farmers produce the bulk of the state’s $8 million strawberry crop. Usually, the roughly 50 acres of local U-pick fields open to the public in late April, but not this year. Many fields opened this week, and some sounded the call even earlier.
“We’ve never started picking strawberries as early as April 9,” Baker said. “We’ve crushed our old record ... of the 18th of April.”
It was the same story at nearby Vaughan’s Farm Produce, where on Friday morning pickers bent over rows of bushy plants and emerged from fields with baskets full of fruit.
At Bruce Henley’s Flip Flop Farmer, also in Virginia Beach, where the rows are largely protected by woods, the season started even sooner, on March 25.
This was a worrisome winter for local strawberry farmers, who begin tending the spring crop in August. A mild February, the second-warmest on record, coaxed early blooms, but frost and temperatures well below freezing in March put the crop in peril. To save the berries, farmers covered fields or sprinkled crops with water to form a protective coat of ice, with varying degrees of success. The early blooms that survived have now fruited, thus the earliest picking season in recent memory.
Jen Vaughan, whose family has owned its namesake Virginia Beach farm since the 1600s, and who manages the U-pick operation at Mount Pleasant Farms in Chesapeake, estimates that weather ruined 20 to 30 percent of their Virginia Beach crop.
“We’re recovering nicely,” she said, surveying the smattering of pickers in the field behind the farmstand.
Farmers have been opening fields sporadically with limited hours to allow berries to ripen, but expect to open for daily picking in the next few days. Prices are around $2.39 a pound, about 10 to 20 cents more than last year, due to the crop damage.
It’s best to call ahead or check online for hours before heading for the fields. And don’t forget the buckets.
This story originally appeared on PilotOnline.com.