It’s strawberry season again!

06/03/2010 12:00 AM |

Tod Berks of Orient purchases some of the season’s earliest strawberries from Pat Sepenoski at Sep’s Farm Stand in Orient.

Farm stands are again stocked with crimson fruit from plants of the genus Fragaria — and that’s a berry good thing.

After constant rain nearly ruined the harvest last year, strawberries are back. Growers are banking on abundant sunshine and a bit of luck to kick the U-pick and farm stand business into high gear and drown the memories of last year’s sodden season.

Just as farmers hope to have sweet corn in their baskets by the 4th of July, strawberries are a must-have commodity for many in late May and early June.

“If you’re the first one on the scene, you’re going to do good no matter what,” said Gekee Wickham, co-owner of Wickham’s Fruit Farm in Cutchogue. “Timing is everything. Whenever you open early, you make the extra money, no question about it. Whenever you open late, the money is gone. It’s an opportunity cost you’ll never catch again.”

Many farmers attribute the early-blooming strawberries to unusually warm weather over the past several weeks. Despite a few heavy rainfalls in mid-May, the extra bit of sunshine toward the end of the month was just enough to ripen strawberries and open U-pick stands before Memorial Day.

“The whole strawberry season depends upon weather conditions,” said Faye Anderson, owner of Anderson Farms in Riverhead. “And that’s something you really can’t tell.”

Although warm weather is an asset for most strawberry farmers, many hope that things cool down as the season progresses. Cool weather, they say, helps strawberries last longer once they’ve ripened, bringing in more profit from tourists and U-pickers before the season ends.

“Once they ripen up, it’s nice to have cooler temperatures because that’ll hold them longer,” said Ms. Anderson. “If you have 90 degree weather five days in a row, they’re going to get overripe. But if they ripen first and then the temperatures cool down, the strawberries will hold better.”

Some growers intentionally plant early varieties to get a jump on business. Others say earlier varieties lack a certain flavorful quality compared to later ones. Early varieties may help business in the short term, they say, but carry a steep price in the long term.

“Early varieties are never as delicious as later varieties,” Ms. Wickham said. “Whenever you plant an early variety, they’re not as sweet. Mother Nature doesn’t like it.”

The ideal situation, Ms. Wickham said, is planting a later variety that comes in early with warm weather. Lolly Rottkamp, for instance, planted a later variety at her Calverton farm but started picking strawberries early last week, much earlier than she anticipated.

“We haven’t opened yet, but we picked a few berries today, and we raise a later variety,” she said last week. “We’ll probably start with pick-your-own in a week or so. People are all looking to pick their own.”

Although the season is starting out strong, most farmers say it’s impossible to predict how it will end. As always, it’s all about the weather.

“When you’re a farmer, you’re a gambler,” Ms. Anderson said. “You take Mother Nature as she comes and make the most of it. That’s all you can do.”

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