Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Celebrating & Growing Strawberries at Harmony Valley Farm

By Farmer Richard

Immature Strawberries
Strawberry Day is upon us and we hope you are making plans to visit our valley to celebrate this year’s strawberry harvest.  We are only in our first week of strawberry picking, which is about 10-14 days behind our “normal” strawberry season due to the cold, wet spring.  This year’s strawberries are looking good, and taste great!  In most years our Strawberry Day is near the end of the season whereas this year we’re just beginning the season.  Before we go any further, I want to mention a few important things for this year’s Strawberry Day event.  Normally we don’t worry too much if the kids (or adults) crawl, roll or run through the patch.  They are having a great time and we’re usually done picking most of the berries so there isn’t too much harm that can be done.  This year, we need to limit the amount of frolicking through the field.  We are proud of this beautiful field and really need to make sure we treat the plants gently and tread lightly so we don’t damage the plants or the immature berries that we want to preserve for picking over the next few weeks.  We’ll limit the traffic to our early varieties including Earliglow and our new early variety called Galletta.  These two early varieties will be in full production.  Some of our mid-season varieties are starting to produce some beautiful berries, but we need to try to stay out of this section of the field so we can continue to have abundant berries for two more weeks! 

This year's strawberry field--streamers to deter the birds!
As you prepare for your trip to the farm this weekend, please remember to pack your ballet shoes (tutu not required) so you can walk gracefully through the field like a ballet dancer and watch where you step! While I understand many members really enjoy participating in the “Heaviest Berry Contest,” we will not be able to host this activity this year.  Many of the big berries that are going to be tempting to pick will be in the part of the field that will not be open for picking.  The competition can get pretty intense some years and we often have excited participants leap off the wagon so they can run through the field in search of the winning berry.  Remember, ballet dancers don’t run.  While they do leap, we ask that you only do maneuvers such as these if you are professionally trained to do so.  Aside from the professional ballet dancers in attendance, we should all consider ourselves amateurs and limit our activity to gentle walking.  Please, do not run through the field this year!  If you do feel a sudden burst of joy coupled with the desire to run, feel free to do laps around the perimeter of the field.  Thank you in advance for your attention to these details.  If we all work together and treat the field with respect, we’ll be able to maximize our harvests this year and preserve the field for another great year in 2019!

Strawberry plants right after planting last spring.
While there won’t be a quiz about strawberry production when you come for Strawberry Day, we thought it might be interesting for our members to understand a little more about how we produce our strawberries.  We use a matted bed system of strawberry production.  This means we plant bare root dormant strawberry plants in early spring.  We space them about 12-16 inches apart.  The field we’ll be picking from this year is actually in its second year of growth, but this is our first year picking from it.  We planted the field last year, spring 2017.  The first year we do not harvest fruit.  The plants will produce blossoms, but we snip them off to shunt the energy in the plant towards producing runners for daughter plants instead of producing fruit.  Generally the amount of fruit a first-year plant would produce is not that great, thus it is more productive to forego the fruit for the sake of encouraging the plant to grow and spread.  The main strawberry plant will send off new growth called runners.  These runners will produce daughter plants that will set their roots into the soil thus propagating our strawberry crop.

Covering strawberries to protect from frost.
Over the course of the first year, we focus on controlling weeds with mechanical cultivation and hand weeding and make sure the plants have adequate water and nutrients to support their growth, health and development.  We bury drip tape under the beds before we plant so we can easily and efficiently provide water as well as nutrients when needed through these water lines. In the fall, the plants will start to produce the embryos or buds in the crown or base of the plant for the following year.  We then cover the plants heavily with straw mulch to protect this new growth from freezing and thawing over the course of the winter.  In the spring, the plants are uncovered and the mulch fills in between the plants to help choke out any weeds and to provide a clean bed for the strawberries.  The mulch isn’t removed too soon though or the plants will start blossoming and are at greater risk of being damaged by frost.  We also cover the field with large row covers, basically a huge blanket to keep the strawberries warm and protected on nights when we anticipate freezing temperatures. 

We select the varieties based on their ripening season, flavor, color, disease resistance and production potential.  Flavor is one of our most important characteristics and we typically only choose varieties that are rated as having “Excellent” flavor by Nourse Farms, the farm that produces our strawberry plants.  Genetics plays a very big role in flavor, which is why we’ve learned to trust Nourse Farms and their expert recommendations.  Every year we evaluate the plants and the characteristics of their fruit to decide which varieties we like best and want to plant again.  In California and Florida, two major strawberry producing states, the varieties they plant are “ever-bearing.”  These varieties have longer ripening seasons and have been bred to be a firmer berry with a longer shelf life to hold up to shipping.  While these strawberries often look pretty, their flavor is no comparison to any local berry you will get in early summer.  The berries we plant are “June-bearing.”  While our season is shorter in comparison, we select varieties that ripen at different times so we can extend our season as long as we can.  We have some early berries (Earliglow and our new Galetta), some mid-season, and some late ripening varieties.

After the harvest is done, we will renovate the field.  This means we will destroy some of the plants to promote more runners and daughter plant production for the next year.  We only harvest off our field for 2 years before it is destroyed and we start a new field in a different location. Why do we do this when the field is still producing?  Well, we like to keep our patch as clean as we can and free from perennial weeds.  The older the patch, the greater the chance that weed seeds such as dandelion and thistle will make their way into the patch.  This is also a means of controlling any leaf disease we may see on a variety.  A young, clean patch will usually have greater production and yields.

The best way to eat a strawberry is while standing in the patch with the sun overhead and a gentle breeze blowing across your face. While I hope you have the chance to do this, the second best option is to eat locally grown berries in season.  Sliced berries are a great topper for a bowl of cereal, ice cream, pancakes, waffles, or added to a spinach salad.  You can also preserve them to eat later in the year in the form of frozen berries, strawberry jam or syrup.  Other popular ways to enjoy strawberries include strawberry shortcake, pie, or chocolate covered berries! 

The weather looks good for this weekend’s festivities.  We have lots of other crops to show you and there may be an opportunity to pick some crops including onions and zucchini!  Of course we’ll have plenty of nice strawberries, delicious strawberry ice cream, and lots of good company as well! 

Our cabins are spoken for, but we still have lots of room in our two campgrounds if you’d like to turn your farm visit into a weekend adventure. 

We hope you enjoy your strawberries this season and we look forward to seeing you at Strawberry Day!

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