Written by Art Petrosemolo
In the first several weeks on my blogging for the Garden Spot website, I have told you that I was a coffee nut and an ice cream fanatic and they were subjects of feature stories for the Ephrata Review and the Lititz Record. But heck, this is June and if you are not a strawberry lover in Lancaster County, you are living in the wrong place.
I would say I am partial to strawberries as fresh fruit as well as in jam and ice cream and I now have acquired a taste for a strawberry-rhubarb juice. This spring I have learned some new things about strawberries and thought I would share.
I always thought growing strawberries, like asparagus, was a process…. Plants take a few years to mature before bearing fruit. Ah, that may have been the case for generations but not in the 21st century. There are varieties of strawberries developed for the commercial farming business that bear fruit and lots of it in the first year.
How do I know, you ask? Well I have been working on a story for more than a month on Amish families who host guests in their homes for dinner. I’ll write about that story and research in a blog later this summer. But suffice to say, it has gotten me deep into the farms of Lancaster County and many with acres of strawberries.
I’m a curious sort and when I learned that the crop was going to be ready to pick, I made sure I was back at the farm to do some more research with my new Amish housewife friend and get a few quarts from her first, May picking.
I had bought some strawberries from a stand earlier in May. Price pretty stable at $4 a quart. Berries OK…. Pretty sandy and needed several rinses and – to be honest – needed sugar to sweeten. Although red(ish) on the outside, some of the fruit was white when cut open.
Well, I’ve been spoiled…. the one-year harvest strawberries from my Amish contact’s farm have been the best I have ever tasted. She tells me they plant in August under black plastic and use a drip system to irrigate. The plants – they plant 23,000 by hand – take root in the early fall and naturally go dormant in the winter.
The strawberries get an early start growing under plastic in spring and are fully mature with fruit by the last week in May if the weather is seasonal. My friend has straw between the rows so when the strawberries are picked from plants that have grown through the plastic, they are so clean, you think they washed them in the field.
The berries are nicely formed, red throughout and can be eaten out of the cardboard container. I brought back several quarts for Garden Spot Village friends and they feel, as I have, that these are some of the best berries they have tasted.
Now if these plants give fruit year one, what happens year two? Well, believe it or not, they are one year wonders. The plants are plowed under at the end of June and the space replanted with pumpkins. The family then prepares another two acres during the summer for new plants that will be put into the ground in August.
Each of the 23,000 plants yields about one quart – that’s 23,000 quarts of strawberries or even 21,000 with 10 percent spoilage. They sell retail at the farm stand for $4 quart. However, the family can’t sell 20,000+ quarts from a farm stand on a back road in Paradise. Most of the fruit is sold at farmers’ markets or at produce auctions like Leola. I understand that the price farmers receive is volatile…if you bring berries to the Leola auction on a day when there is a glut of strawberries, even if your berries are the best, they can sell for less than a $1 a quart and since they ripen quickly, you have no choice but to take the offer. A few days later there may not be anywhere as much inventory brought to auction and you can receive not only a fair but a premium price.
Planting, cultivating, and harvesting strawberries is a very labor-intensive business. I don’t even want to think of planting 23,000 strawberry plants, but I might be talked into harvesting some of them if I could snack along the way.
In any case, the strawberry season lasts through June…don’t miss it. Oh, how do I like my berries? Layer of strawberries and then some shortbread (easy to find at all these farm stands)….then, a second layer of berries, a layer of Lapp’s Maple Walnut Ice Cream, topped by fresh whipped cream. Dessert bowl doesn’t work for me… I need a soup bowl.