The ripe time for picking

Apr. 22, 2014 @ 09:46 PM

They’re red, sweet and nearing maturity at several Lee County farms.

A sign of spring is at hand with the availability of fresh strawberries, and some local growers say their crop is ready for harvest or will be over the next couple of weeks. Tina Gross of Gross Farms said her farm’s strawberry season opens today, when the produce barn reopens and patrons can start picking their own or purchase the fruit pre-packaged.

“This is the roughest winter we’ve had in many years, but we’re going to be able to open at roughly the same time we did in 2013,” Gross said.

Gross said the operation she runs with her husband, John, located at 1606 Pickett Road, Sanford, sees thousands of visitors annually at this time, who pluck strawberries from 3.5 acres worth of plants. Throughout the season, which usually runs for four to six weeks, patrons can drop by from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, or 1-5 p.m. Sunday.

Given the state of the crop at this early stage, Gross said her outlook is positive.

“The plants look very healthy,” she said. “They’re going to be very bountiful.”   

The economic impact of strawberries is not on par with some other produce locally, said Kim Tungate, agriculture agent, field crops and livestock for North Carolina Cooperative Extension In Lee County; but she added, “per acre, it’s significant.”

“It is an important crop; it certainly is good income if it’s a good yield,” Tungate said. “And it’s certainly a favorite for children up to adults.”  

Tungate said area commercial growers specialize in three main types of strawberries: the orange-red Sweet Charlies, intensely flavored Chandlers and large, firm Camarosas. North Carolina “Farm Fresh” website www.gottobenc.com lists several locations in Lee County where locals can find the fruit, including Gross Farms, Barry’s Strawberry Farm on Cox Mill Road, Douglas’s Strawberry Patch on Johnson Cemetery Road, Gary Thomas Farms on Thomas Road, Harrington Farms on San Lee Drive, Logan Farms on Logan Farm Lane and McNeill Farms on Lemon Springs Road.  

Bill Logan, one of the owners of Logan Farms, shared Gross’s high hopes for the season ahead.

“The strawberries look good right now,” he said. “They’re just going to be a little late this year, probably the first of May.”

Two acres of strawberries are almost ready for picking at the family-owned-and-operated farm, which Logan said is open from 8 a.m.-7 p.m. every day except Sunday.

At McNeill Farms, owner Steve McNeill said his Sweet Charlies “are just starting to come in,” and he is planning to open up at 9 a.m. Thursday and Saturday for limited hours — as long as the produce lasts.

“I anticipate them running out pretty fast,” he said. More stock could be ready as soon as the following week, he added — advising would-be visitors to call the farm at (919) 774-1085 for the most up-to-date information before they come. 

Strawberries could be available at the farm through the first week of June, McNeill said, depending on the weather. The plants languish in extreme heat greater than 90 degrees, so strawberry farmers cross their fingers for an extended mild stretch.

“We’re just taking it a day at a time,” McNeill said. “We always anticipate the best because we are optimistic by nature as farmers.” 


ABOUT NORTH CAROLINA STRAWBERRIES:

* North Carolina is a leading producer of strawberries. The state ranks third in the U.S. in strawberry production, based on value of the crop harvested.

* Acreage in production as of 2012: approximately 1,600 (USDA figures)

* Total annual production as of 2012: approximately 20.3 million pounds (USDA figures)

* Value of annual strawberry crop as of 2012: $29.4 million farm income

Information supplied by the N.C. Strawberry Association via its website, http://www.ncstrawberry.com