The season for strawberries

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 3, 2007

Strawberry fields may not be forever, but they should last until the end of May.

Two new farms have cropped up this year in the area, one in Windsor and one in Hunterdale.

On a farm that also grows wheat, soybeans, peanuts or cotton, Amp and Beth Cobb of Goose Hill Farm have planted two varieties of strawberries.

“The key is freshness,” James Story of Scottswood said, holding up a quart of berries he had just purchased. “These are the prettiest berries to beat all.”

Located on Bethel Road, the one-acre patch boasts Sweet Charlie and Chandler berries, pollinated by honeybees provided by Charles Hood of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

“We’ve always had strawberries in our garden at home and we’ve always considered doing this,” Amp said. “We just finally planted them this year.”

The Cobbs attended a strawberry school in Virginia Beach conducted by Barclay Poling, a small-fruit specialist from North Carolina State University.

Farmer David Horton of Windsor also attended strawberry school with Cobb and grows 15 acres of peanuts and 35 of cotton in addition to his berries.

Both growers planted in early October.

“When we had the first cold snap in February, we didn’t do anything to them, but during the more recent snap, we put row covers over them to protect them,” Cobb said.

The plants begin flowering in March, and roughly 20 to 28 days later, depending on the weather, berries form.

Once March rolls around, there is something to be done in the field every week.

“We are using a trickle irrigation system,” Cobb said. “I run the fertilizer through that system.”

The strawberry beds are built up and covered in plastic. A strip of irrigation tape is buried under the soil in the rows. The strips have small holes to allow the water to drip, soaking the soil around the plants.

“I take tissue samples and send them to a laboratory in Richmond to determine whether the plants need more nitrogen or the amount of nutrients they are getting,” he said. “It helps me stay on top of what is needed.”

Horton planted a half-acre on his farm on Horton’s Lane. Despite many obstacles, his operation is doing well.

“The October nor’easter dropped 12 inches of rain on the plants,” he said. “I got up one morning, and half of them had popped out of the ground. I had to push them back in the ground by hand.

“Then, I had deer damage. I put up an electric fence, but it knocked back the yield a bit. I had to wait for new growth.”

Then came multiple nights of frost during April.

“If we get a frost, it’s usually only for one night,” Horton said. “I experimented. I covered about three quarters of them and left the others out. I lost the blooms on the unprotected ones, but more buds came out later. I’m able to pick now from the plants that were protected.

“Since this is my first year, I’m trying to see how they grow and learn from it.”

Horton planted the Chandler variety only and is letting the wind naturally pollinate his plants.

“Next year, I’m going to get a beehive,” he said.

Horton, who also works at the Tidewater Agricultural Research and Extension Center near Holland, said although he had basically used drip irrigation, there have been times when overhead irrigation has been needed, like Monday and Tuesday of this week.

“I’m running the overhead sprinkler on them to keep the blossoms cool during the heat. You really have to protect the blossoms. At the same time, you can use the overhead irrigation to protect them from the frost.”

At Hackman Strawberries in Margarettsville, N.C., an established farm near Boykins, an acre of Chandler and Camrosa varieties is ready to be picked. Containers are provided at the facility.

According to Brenda Hackman, who co-owns the farm with her husband, Philip, this is the first year they have tried the Camrosas in the 10 years they have been raising the fruits.

“We are really having a good year,” she said. “It seemed like it started with a bang.

“During the Easter freeze, we put row crop covers on them and ran overhead irrigation, on top of that.

“During that time, Philip was out there four nights, baby-sitting the patch.”

Brenda said the strawberry patch is a side project for them.

“We’ve always enjoyed this type of thing,” she said. “We like having the contact with the community. Saturdays are especially a great time.”

Hackman’s farm offers pick-your-own or pick-for-you services and uses a hive for pollination. This year, they also moved the patch to a different area.

“The berries have done well in the new soil,” she said. “Last year was a good year, as far as sales. I’d have to say this year is as good or better.”

Goose Hill Farm offers a “you-pick” operation and is open Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m.

“People can come out, enjoy the sun and fresh air, get a little exercise and taste what they’re picking,” he said. “You can’t do that in the grocery store.”

Horton is doing all the picking this year at his Windsor farm, and said so far, people have liked the fruits of his labor.

“They turned out a whole lot better than I thought,” he said. “I’m pleased, although the crop can be better.

“I’m definitely going to do this again next year, no matter what. You can’t just quit after the first year.”

The berries range in price, some being sold by the quart and some by the pound.

Hackman’s offers both “you-pick” or “we-pick-for-you,” options and is open from 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Southampton County Extension Agent Wes Alexander said strawberry farms can be very successful, but require a lot of work.

“It’s an intensive crop,” he said. “Things like soil preparation, creating beds and weed control involves extra work. Then you’ve got to advertise and have someone at the patch to take the money.

“Most of our (county) farmers are row crop farmers, and the smaller berry farm doesn’t fit into their large-scale farming.

“I think raising strawberries has good potential here. It fits certain farm operations run by those who are willing to provide the management needed.”