Researchers seek longer strawberry season

ON THE FARM

May 13, 2007|By Ted Shelsby

They are an epicurean delight: plump, red, locally grown strawberries, sweet, soft and juicy.

About the only downside is that the strawberry season is so short.

We get so busy this time of the year - mowing grass, planting flowers and tilling ground for a vegetable patch - that the strawberry season can easily pass us by.

Researchers at the University of Maryland are out to change this. They are experimenting with growing techniques aimed at extending the spring season, and possibly helping establish a second season to meet the demands of the Thanksgiving and Christmas strawberry markets.

Up to this time of year, most of the strawberries on grocery stores shelves come from California or Florida. They are bred as much to withstand the long trip across country as for taste. The result is an often a tough berry that needs sugar to be palatable.

Strawberries have a prominent place in Maryland agricultural history. They were the major crop on the lower Eastern Shore in the early 1940s. At that time, Pittsville, in rural Wicomico County, was known as the Strawberry Capital of the World.

California has since conquered the market, with its farmers growing berries 10 months of the year and accounting for about 80 percent of U.S. production. Strawberry sales in Maryland in 2005 totaled $1.7 million, compared with California's $1.1 billion.

But many would agree that berries shipped from California can't match the quality of the homegrown fruit.

"There is no question about it: You get a better quality, better tasting berry at a local farm," said Michael Newell, a crop program manager at the University of Maryland Wye Research and Education Center near Queenstown.

Alas, the season usually lasts only about four weeks, Newell said.

Berries thrive in cool temperatures. Depending upon the weather, Eastern Shore strawberries usually are ready for picking by the middle of May, and the season runs until the middle of June.

Climate variations across the state result in a slightly later starting season in some locales. In the Frederick area, for example, the season usually runs from June 1 to July 1.

Using various growing techniques, researchers at the Wye facility have been able to more than double the strawberry-growing season. Their berries now are becoming available two or three weeks earlier and two weeks later than usual.

Some farmers have been successful growing berries in a greenhouse-like system known as high tunnels, Newell said.

"They look like a greenhouse, but they have no mechanical ventilation and no supplemental heating system," he said. The stripped-down system works around the high costs of trying to grow such produce in a traditional greenhouse.

Another method being used is called plastic culture, in which soil is pilled into a mound and covered with black plastic. Holes punched into the plastic to allow for the plants to be placed in the soil, and the plastic heats the soil and makes the plants grow faster, Newell said.

This system is more expensive than the traditional method of growing plants, but it produces about three times the amount of fruit per acre. Plants grown in the plastic typically produce bigger berries, Newell said. This means less waste at pick-your-own strawberry farms, where pickers usually leave the smaller berries in the fields.

Even California growers all but grind to a halt during November and December, just when the holiday season boosts demand for strawberries. The high-tunnel technique is being viewed as a possible way to create a second season for Maryland growers to meet that need, Newell said.

"People want the local product and farmers could get a premium price for their out-of-season strawberries," he said. "We're not the only ones looking at this. ... It seems like every state is doing it. We may not come up with something, but somebody will. The consumer wants it."

At a glance

The Maryland Department of Agriculture has prepared a list of farms where customers can pick strawberries. Here are farms in the Baltimore metropolitan area. (Because seasons vary throughout the state, it is best to call ahead to check on availability of berries.)

Anne Arundel County

Mt. Airy U-Pick Farm, 832 Mount Airy Road, Davidsonville. Phone: 410-798-1862 or 410-798-0838.

Nellie Nelson's, 8059 Long Hill Road (off Mountain Road), Pasadena. Phone: 410-255-4727.

Baltimore County

Huber's Family Produce Farm, Route 7 and Raphel Road, Bradshaw. Phone: 410-679-1941 or 410-679-1948.

Shaw Orchards, 3121 Norrisville Road, White Hall. Phone: 410-692-2429.

Carroll County

Baugher's Farm Orchard Market, 1236 Baugher Road, Westminster. Phone: 410-848-5541 or 410-857-0112.

Sewell's Farm, 3400 Harney Road, Taneytown. Phone: 410-756-4397

Cecil County

Walnut Springs, 3910 Blue Ball Road, Elkton. Phone: 410-398-3451

Harford County

Brad's Produce, 550 Ashbury Road, Churchville. Phone: 410-734-GROW or 410-569-7288.

Jones Farm Market, 2100 Philadelphia Road, Edgewood. Phone: 410-676-3709.

Lohr's Orchard, 3212 Snake Lane, Churchville. Phone: 410-836-2783.

Howard County

Larriland Farm Inc., 2415 Route 94 (Woodbine Road), Woodbine. Phone: 410-442-2605 or 301-854-6110.

For the complete list of farms throughout Maryland go the Department of Agriculture Web site, www.mda.state.md.us/go/pickyourown.

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