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Strawberry season sets sail

  • Bethany Moore of Ashfield buys strawberries Wednesday at Pine Brook Farm Stand in Northampton. The berries come from Warner Farm in Sunderland. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Strawberries from Warner Farm in Sunderland sold at Pine Brook Farm Stand in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Karen Solomon buys strawberries at Pine Brook Farm Stand in Northampton. The berries come from Warner Farm in Sunderland. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Shannon Ryan, an employee at Pine Brook Farm Stand in Northampton, waits for customers. The berries come from Warner Farm in Sunderland. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Karen Solomon buys strawberries Wednesday at Pine Brook Farm Stand in Northampton. The berries come from Warner Farm in Sunderland. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS



For the Gazette
Thursday, June 14, 2018

That sweet strawberry time has just about arrived, with farms opening their pick-your-own plots and stands starting to pop up around the Valley.

Local grower Elizabeth Niedziela said the sunny skies and the relatively small amount of rain the area has received since spring is the reason for the large production of strawberries.

“There hasn’t been too much rain, so the berries haven’t molded,” said Niedziela, who sells strawberries and other fruits and vegetables in a tent in Hadley along Route 9. She said she grows the berries as a hobby, and sells the extra.

Niedziela said she is still quite new to growing berries — she has only been cultivating them for three years — but according to her, this year, though still relatively early in the season, is shaping up to be one of the best since she began.

The success of strawberries this year was echoed by another local grower, Vanna Kong. Kong grows strawberries and other vegetables in her backyard, and sells them in a produce stand on Lawrence Plain Road in Hadley.

Kong said she has had great success growing strawberries this year and, like Niedziela, attributed the large amount of berries to the favorable weather conditions.

There hasn’t been much rain, and it hasn’t been too, Kong said.

According to Kong, cool, dry and sunny conditions are ideal for strawberries. Kong said she is happy that the weather has been cooperative, especially since so much of the yield depends on good weather.

Both Niedziela and Kong said the berries they have grown are selling well.

“They are really popular,” Niedziela said. “Everyone is looking for local berries.”

Donna Boudo, who lives in Florence, but travels to Hadley to buy produce from Kong’s stand, praised the quality of the strawberries and asparagus.

“The strawberries are wonderful, nice and sweet,” Boudo said. “Can’t buy it any better.”

Pick-your-own

“Everyone loves it,” says Upinngil Farm’s Clifford Hatch, who’s been offering pick-your-own strawberries in Gill for 25 years, “It’s our flush of summer.”

Pick-your-own was scheduled to begin last weekend at Upinngil and also at Red Fire Farm in Montague. But for anyone who thought they’d head to Whately or Sunderland, where seasons usually get a head start, there has been a few more days of waiting.

Whately’s Pasciecnik Farms, which has a pick-your-own business, began picking its own berries last week and is seeing a season that’s about a week late this year, so it doesn’t plan to open its you-pick until this weekend.

Nourse Farms in Whately, which was a major pick-your-own destination until about three years ago, is also seeing a season that’s a week or so later than usual.

The River Road farm, which has a retail tent that should be open soon, according to owner Tim Nourse, has about 10 acres of strawberries, mostly for retail customers.

“This means we just pick berries later,” he adds, with strawberries likely to be available through at least July 16. “With a later season, you get more concentration of ripening with late varieties. It’s kind of what it is, so you deal with it accordingly.”

There was a late fruit bloom this year for Upinngil, but things have caught up for about 3 acres of berries to be ready for the start of you-pick beginning at 8 a.m. and probably continuing daily with two more weekends of picking ahead.

“Our later varieties are just finishing up now,” said Hatch, who had berries retailing at the farm stand last week.

With help from some extra early varieties, including the combination of a plastic mulch system and planting plugs instead of dormant plants, Ryan Voiland said Red Fire North was able to start retailing strawberries weeks ago at the new Red Fire North store on Route 63 in Montague.

Voiland said his regular strawberry crop could be about a week late because of cooler temperatures, but his early berries began ripening as early as May 20. While in some years Red Fire prepared to open for pick-your-own organic berries by the start of June, last weekend’s opening was “just a tad on the late side.”

He estimates he’s growing between 5 and 6 acres of berries between Red Fire’s Montague and Granby farms.

“It’s been a little cool, but ... I don’t think strawberries like it when it’s 90 as they’re ripening,” said Voiland, who expects the Meadow Road farm picking to go on for three weekends, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (Red Fire’s CSA members are welcome to pick any day of the week.)

“The flavor’s been very good” this year, Voiland said. He’s experimenting with use of row covers and straw, versus different colors of plastic mulching on the regular season berries.

Michael Wisseman of Warner Farm says he hopes the Greenfield plot he rents on Plain Road will be open this week, a couple of days after his Sunderland field.

Dwindling operation

Wisseman expects that the you-pick fields will be open at least through July 4 and probably a week beyond that.

But growers agree that pickers reach a saturation point after several weeks of strawberries, and you-pick operations have dwindled as business has declined.

“In the ’60s and ’70s when we did it, people would be lined up, and the hardest job was parking all the cars,” recalls Wisseman, whose in-laws started what he says was the area’s first pick-your-own patch in 1963. “At the height, we had 14 to 15 acres, and 95 percent was pick-your-own.

“Those days are not going to return, but it seems to be coming back because of the interest in local agriculture and there’s kind of more entertainment value it, where it’s something fun to do with the kids.”

But, he adds, “You’re not getting people picking pounds and pounds. You used to have people fill their station wagons with flats, and they’d pick 100 or 200 pounds. Now the volume is much less and people just aren’t doing their own processing at home like they used to make preserves and to freeze strawberries. Moms used to be more frequently at home and everybody had freezer chests.”

Wisseman, who supplies several community strawberry suppers and plans to have a Father’s Day strawberry breakfast at the farm as an added attraction, says, “We’re lucky we live in the area we live in, where there’s a lot of interest doing outdoor stuff.”

Hatch, who finds that “By end June, people run out of steam” for berry picking, also believes people are picking less as a reflection of “good economic times.”

“It just doesn’t seem that expensive to them to buy picked berries,” he said. “I think if gas prices suddenly got really outrageous, sales would jump.”