The Mountain Times

°F Thu, April 17, 2014

Central Vermont's Most Popular Weekly Newspaper

Strawberry season is sweet but fleeting

If you only buy your strawberries at the supermarket, you are missing out. In America, more than 80 percent of them come from ennormous farms in California and that number is growing due to technological advances in plant development and risk mitigation.

If there is one agricultural product that a consumer should experience locally, it is a strawberry. Vermont farmers are adept at picking the fruits just as they become ripe and an eater will be enjoying them that day or shortly thereafter, hopefully, unrefrigerated (refrigeration drastically reduces flavor.)

It is generally accepted that the older the plant, the better the quality of the fruit. Many plants in Vermont are quite old and are growing varieties of berries that simply don't exist in California. Different varieties are grown for different purposes much like apples, so some are better for cooking, preserving, or eating raw.

Wood's Farm in Brandon is a local favorite for strawberries. Many days they cannot keep enough on their farm stand located off Route 7 in Brandon is less than a half mile away from the fields where their berries grow along with a diverse assortment of other other Vermont staples.

This time of year, at farm stands and farmers markets across the state the emphasis is cleanly on the strawberries. All Vermont berry farmers are acutely aware of their precious fleeting season. With the three acres at Wood's Farm the crew has about four weeks to get as many berries from the plants. At the most recent Rutland Market, Wood's employee Jason Martin was able to sell nearly 300 quarts of berries. He said this year's berry crop is coming in very well and it has been an excellent season so far.

It can be lucrative to dedicate even a small section of farmland to berry cultivation. With quarts going for around $6, strawberries can be profitable on as little as one acre. Little Lake Orchard in the town of Wells is an upstart farm that recently planted strawberries, apple trees and peach trees. Although the plants are notorious for under-producing during their first year in the ground, the Balzano family was able to host their first annual strawberry festival on the farm this year. Strawberry Festivals are a New England tradition dating back to the 1800s and have grown to signify the beginning of summer. The celebration at Little Lake Orchard offered their first harvest of berries, an opportunity to pick-your-own berries and the season's most exalted dessert, the strawberry shortcake.

If you missed the Little Lake Orchard fest, North Clarendon will host a Strawberry Festival this Saturday from 4-7 p.m. at the Brick Church on Middle Road. They plan to offer an extensive menu of summer favorites to compliment the region's best strawberries.  

1--Strawberry --Lucy -Allen -picks -at -Little -Lake -Orchard

An acre of land on a specialized farm in California can produce more than 20 times the berries than an acre in Vermont. The Central Valley in California has the weather to grow practically year-round but that is not the main reason why the fields produce so much better than eastern fields. The reason is technology, both in terms of plant development and risk mitigation. The plant responsible for California's monster crop was originally grown in a petri dish and cloned. It was primed for maximum production (more than a billion pounds annually).

For the last 100 years, people have been developing strawberry varieties that possess certain characteristics necessary for commercial production. These traits include berry size, color, resistance to pests and disease, and shelf life. Taste and optimal ripeness are not necessarily of great concern. Thus, the berries from California are harvested before they are ripe and refrigerated on their long journey to supermarkets across the country. Strawberries will grow redder simply by sitting on the shelf but this doesn't mean they are any riper. This explains the common disappointment of slicing a red supermarket berry and finding the white, dry, bland, center.

Then there are the chemicals. California farmers invest millions of dollars in their crops and they will not run the risk of crop failures due to disease, mold, pests or fungus. Plants are fumigated and the soil itself is injected with chemicals that kill everything. (In fact, the word soil is probably inappropriate because most California strawberries are grown in an inert, non-organic material that mimics the water retention of soil.) This is just further insurance that a healthy yield will be realized. Methyl Bromide is used in staggering amounts for strawberry production, which is becoming a major concern for the industry out west because that chemical is being phased out by the EPA due to O-zone depletion.

Photos by Nathan Allen