Berry Forecast: Pick or wait?
A cool, wet spring impacts local fruit
By Chelsea Harrison
I have only to break into the tightness of a strawberry, and I see summer—its dust and lowering skies.Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
Fresh strawberries have a distinctive smell, and you know it when you find it: sweet, tart, a little grassy, some say like caramel. To borrow a term from winemaking, strawberries can be sensitive to their terroir, or the environmental factors, such as soil, climate, and sunlight, that can affect the flavor and aroma of crops. In Maryland, where it feels like we experience four seasons in the same day, farmers must stay on their toes to bring us this treasured crop.
In honor of National Pick Strawberries Day, May 20, we went in search of where you can pick strawberries and what to expect from this year’s crop.
A Surprising Spring
There are many jokes and memes about Maryland’s capricious weather, but even for lifelong Marylanders, this spring has seemed particularly indecisive. Between all the rain, some late freezes, intermittent warm sunshine, (and this just in: possibly 90 degrees this weekend?)—what does that mean for our beloved spring crop, the strawberry?
The farmers I spoke to seem to take weather struggles in stride, as just part of the job. Joe-Sam Swann, sixth-generation farmer and owner of Swann Farms in Owings says their strawberry season has been pushed a little later than expected, however “the weather is predictably unpredictable…but that’s the weather, and it’s not a bad thing.”
As gardeners know, late spring frosts can be detrimental to early planting efforts. So how do farmers solve for those issues with strawberry crops? Swann uses row covers, which he compares to “a sheet on your bed,” which insulates the young plants and keeps the wind and frost off them as much as possible.
Tyler Butler, third-generation farmer and general manager of Butler’s Orchard in Germantown, takes a similar approach. “We did have a very difficult spring in terms of frost protection. We had to go out and irrigate the crops by creating a layer of ice around the blossoms, and we did not get significant damage because we were on top of it,” he said.
According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather data, the lowest temperature in April (recorded at BWI Airport) was 31 degrees on April 11. Butler says that plants begin to lose fruit at 28 degrees, so the slim temperature margin helped protect the plants in most areas, in addition to the proactive steps many farmers took.
We also received an extra half inch of rain (.53) over the April average, and as of mid-May, temperatures were averaging 3.3 degrees cooler than average for the month.
While these conditions have harmed strawberry crops in some locations and delayed in others, Butler notes that these conditions could “actually be very good for a lot of crops, like the new strawberries for next year.”
Mark Powell, Chief of Agriculture and Seafood Marketing at Maryland Department of Agriculture, is optimistic about this year’s crops. “In general, the crop will be good and sweet,” he says. “The cool weather has slowed up harvest and some crops were damaged by frost. But the berries that remain will be bigger in some cases.”
It’s Picking Season
Picking your own fruit is a fun excursion and a great learning opportunity for the kids—food comes from the dirt, not from a plastic carton. Kids (and adults) may gain a greater appreciation for the hard work that goes into farming and producing the food that often seems to effortlessly end up on the dinner table.
Laretta Oberlander of Crofton visited Swann Farms on May 5 with her family. They picked a bucket of berries and were able to explore and learn about the farm, as well. “The people are so kind at Swann Farms. My toddler wanted to explore and when I asked, the answer was ‘of course,’” she says. “The nice man educated us on the different berries being grown and when they would be harvested. I always love going there.”
Butler’s Orchard knows that many families make strawberry picking an annual tradition. The orchard has been in operation for over 70 years and now have multi-generational visitors– people who came as children now bring their own children or even grandchildren. “Strawberries are a flavor that definitely brings back childhood memories,” Butler notes.
Grocery store packages of strawberries tend to offer larger berries because they fill containers faster and require less labor, though the flavor is lacking compared to farm fresh berries. Butler
says they choose their strawberry varieties with pickers in mind.
You-pick farms do not have to consider things like shelf life, transportation, and labor costs. The most important factor is flavor since most of the berries will literally be in the consumer’s hands right from the field. “Our berries are small and sweet,” Butler adds.
If you are planning to go picking, be sure to check the farm’s website or social media before you go for updates on opening hours and field conditions. In many cases, business hours can vary day by day.
Where to Pick
22222 Davis Mill Road, Germantown
Pick from over 15-acres of fields on this 37-acre farm; park, restaurant, and market on-site. Farm Park includes tractor rides, playground, and slides. Market offers “famous” lemonade, apple, and strawberry slushies.
Strawberry Outlook: Plan on opening Memorial Day weekend. Some weather issues in spring but “we did not get significant damage … we lost a little but not a lot; we’ll still have an abundant season.” May 16 update via Facebook: “It’s almost our favorite time of year! Juicy red ripe strawberries are coming to tastebuds near you very soon! Opening day looks to be late May especially with warm sunny skies ahead. Picking will be by reservation. Season passes available!”
2857 Davidsonville Road, Davidsonville
Family-owned, roadside produce stand, in business for over 60 years.
Strawberry Outlook: Updates via Chase’s Facebook page: April 29: “On the morning of April 29th we had a frost/freeze most blooms and berries are lost. We may have a few berries later but pick your own may or may not happen this year. We predict nothing until the middle of May, Stay tuned for further updates.” As of May 15: “We will be open Sunday at 10:00am. We’re not sure for how long. But we’ve got some beautiful berries that need to be picked.”
12570 Scaggsville Road (RT-216), Highland
Organic farm with a focus on sustainability, offering CSA program and You-Pick Strawberries.
Strawberry Outlook: Update via Facebook, May 4: “When will pick your own strawberries be ready at Gorman Farms? The crystal ball says mid- May. We will announce that day when the plants show us rows of red ripe berries. We are getting close.”
2415 Woodbine Road, Woodbine
Family owned and operated farm, in business since 1972 with 10 acres of strawberries. Farm market on site and picnic area at the Red Barn.
Strawberry Outlook: “Things are greening up, temperatures are coming up, lots of things are in blossom. It’s a beautiful spring. We will open when the strawberries ripen, which is usually in late May or early June. We look forward to seeing you soon!”
10140 Piscataway Road, Clinton
267-acre farm, family owned since 1879, offering produce, a bakery filled with homemade donuts and ice cream, fall events, and you-pick.
Strawberry Outlook: Opened for you-pick on May 6. Miller Farms Facebook page reports, as of May 9: “The field is loaded with beautiful berries making for excellent picking conditions!”
12850 Shlagel Road, Waldorf
Third-generation family farm, over 110 years of continuous farming, offering CSAs, you-pick, and sells at several local farmers markets.
Strawberry Outlook: According to Shlagel Farms Facebook page: “Now open daily for U-Pick Strawberries from 10-5 rain or shine. Season should last thru Memorial Day or longer depending on weather. Berries are plentiful and delicious. Bring your own containers or use ours.”
7740 Swan Ln, Owings
Sixth-generation family farm, dates back to 1850s, offering 8 acres of you-pick strawberries as well as you-pick blueberries and blackberries (when in season), farm stand also offers asparagus, flowers, and honey.
Strawberry Outlook: As of May 11: “The skies are blue, and the air is sweet and fragrant with wafts of sun-ripened strawberries.” Slightly later start than average, but plants are healthy and productive. Purchase your container on arrival and then pick and wander at your own pace. Picnic tables available, and guests are encouraged to wander the grounds and enjoy the scenery.
The Sweet Taste of Spring
What if you celebrated National Pick Strawberries Day and it’s looking like strawberry fields forever in your fridge? Here are a few ways to use your strawberries to the max, even when they are a few days past their prime.
Re-purpose strawberry stems by making a pitcher of strawberry-infused water; combine with some cucumber or citrus slices and you’ll feel like you’re at the spa.
Freezing strawberries is also an option, though, they tend to go a little soft on defrosting, so freezing is best if you’ll be using your leftover strawberries for smoothies or baking. Wash and dry the berries, spread out on a baking sheet and freeze overnight, then transfer to a freezer bag.
Strawberry Coconut Truffles: Blend in food processor: 1 c. coconut butter, 1 c. strawberries, 2 T. maple syrup or honey. Scoop into small spoonfuls, roll into balls, place on parchment-lined baking sheet and put in freezer. Melt together 1 c. dark chocolate chips, 2 T. almond milk. When strawberry balls are chilled, roll in melted chocolate, place back on baking sheet (optional- sprinkle with flaky sea salt), and pop back in freezer for 15 minutes to set. Enjoy! (Recipe courtesy of Evelynn Breedlove)
I am always amazed at how my grandmother brought strawberries back to life simply by slicing them into a bowl of sugar water. They take on a softer, syrupy texture, but this trick can stretch the shelf life several more days rather than letting the berries succumb to mold. (These go great with the Butterfly Shortcake recipe.)
How do you like your berries?
Tyler Butler, owner of Butler’s Orchard: Just like when I was a kid, take a bowl of Rice Krispies out [to the strawberry fields] in the morning and slice the fresh berries right into the bowl.
Laretta Oberlander, Crofton mom and Swann’s fan: With pound cake and cream.
Chelsea Harrison, strawberry superfan and the author: Room temperature, in a shallow dish of powdered sugar.
Joe-Sam Swann, owner of Swann Farms: Standing out in the middle of the field, straight from the plant. Or in strawberry shortcake.
Mark S. Powell, Maryland Department of Agriculture: I love them fresh out of the field for sure. But I really love a good strawberry rhubarb pie as well, with fresh local vanilla ice cream on the side.
Nana’s Butterfly Shortcake
Recipe courtesy of Mildred “Nana” Burton
(Makes 12 biscuits)
Strawberry shortcake is a dessert that eats like a meal, and of course, a classic use for farm fresh strawberries. This recipe for a shortcake base can be whipped up in about 30 minutes.
2 c. flour
4 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. salt
1/3 c. sugar
1/2 c. butter
3/4 c. half & half
Drop by large spoonful onto ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes. Top with berries or favorite filling. Optional: serve with fresh whipped cream. Tip: After the first day, store biscuits in the fridge.