Barry Harrington thinks he might have ripe strawberries at his Sanford farm by Easter.
Thats a good week earlier than usual, said Harrington, who has run Barrys Strawberry Farm since 1997.
With such an early start and presuming really hot weather holds off, this could mean a longer season for strawberries. And that translates into more income for producers such as Harrington.
North Carolina is the fourth-largest strawberry-producing state in the nation.
Weather is the main factor in determining the maturity of a strawberry crop and the length of the season, said Robin Watson, a regional agronomist at the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Along with Barrys, many of the more than 150 strawberry farms across the state expect to open as early as next week. Thats anywhere from a week to 10 days sooner than expected.
Gross Farms in Sanford is even ahead of that. The farm started harvesting strawberries Monday, with signs luring drivers off nearby U.S. 421 by proclaiming Ripe Here! Ripe Now!
Its a little bit earlier than we anticipated, Charlene Harrington of Gross Farms said. Weve had a lot of traffic.
On Wednesday, farm workers picked 25 buckets of strawberries at the farm, which were then sorted into quarts or flats for sale. Other customers went into the fields to pick their own. At the peak of the season, farm employees can bring in as many as 100 buckets a day, in addition to what customers pick.
Just a few more days
Fifteen years of experience has taught Karma Lee at Buckwheat Farm in Apex to expect to open the pick-your-own business toward the end of April. Never in all of those years does she remember the berries ripening as early as they have this season.
But warm spring nights have left the farms 3-acre strawberry field overflowing with green fruits and a few bright red berries that appear to be ready to eat. Lee said she is telling eager customers that those berries need just a few more days to sweeten.
Its like waiting on a baby, she said. You know the berries will be ready during a certain period of time, but the exact date is hard to determine.
Harringtons you-pick-or-we-pick farm on U.S. 421 on the south side of Sanford is a sea of stout green plants with delicate, white flowers. Warmer-than-normal weather during the winter caused the plants to produce twice as many crowns as usual, Harrington said, each one representing a potential fruit. Hell have to wait and see whether the berries will be as big as they usually are.
What people dont understand is, the small berries are just as good as the big ones, said Harrington, who raises berries as a hobby. In his day job, hes an environmental engineer for the state Department of Transportation.
Dealing with the weather
Even though this years strawberry season will open with a bang, growers must always prepare for unpredictable Southern weather, such as the late spring frosts two years ago that killed many berries and blooms, Lee said.
Fred Miller of Hilltop Farms in Willow Spring is keeping covers on his berries just in case another cold front comes in before opening day.
Watson, of the Agriculture Department, said potential cold weather can be avoided with protective shields known as row covers and possible dry weather can be helped by irrigation systems. A bigger worry is high temperatures later that are impossible to ward off and can terminate an entire crop.
We have to deal with what the weather gives us, Harrington said.
For now, Lee continues to monitor the berries while taking care of last-minute preparations such as getting the strawberry shed ready and weeding out between the rows. She updates the farms voice mail message, website and Facebook page often, because she knows that customers have waited all year to pick fresh North Carolina strawberries.
And when the time is right, she said, they will come by the carload.