Johnston County is ripe for strawberry picking.
Farms here have fields full of ripe red berries, and they’re ready for families to come out and fill baskets with the sweet fruit. Most farms also sell pre-picked cartons of fresh strawberries, with the picking season lasting through late May or early June.
Smith’s Nursery has been growing strawberries for 21 years, which means third-generation farmer Chris Smith can only vaguely remember the time before his dad started planting the fruit.
“We put them in when I was 10 years old, so I pretty much grew up working the strawberry stand,” he said.
Smith works alongside his brother and parents at Smith’s Nursery, and he said they have four acres of Camarosa strawberries this year. The family plants the fruit in October, and Smith said a lot of time and labor goes into the crop before the berries are ready to pick starting in April.
The pick-your-own business has grown in popularity in recent years, Smith said. Some of that likely has to do with the rising demand for locally-grown foods, he said, along with people trying to eat healthier.
But mostly, Smith said picking strawberries is just a great family outing.
“It makes a good photo opportunity, and it teaches your kids where their produce comes from,” he said. “And I think people like to know that their strawberries are fresh, know where they came from and meet the people who grew them.”
The strawberry fields are open seven days a week at Smith’s Nursery, with weekends being the busiest times.
It’s always a good idea to call ahead to make sure a strawberry farm has enough ripe berries for picking.
This time of year, Smith’s Nursery also hosts field trips where children learn about the importance of bees to agriculture, feed some goats and get to pick a basket of fresh strawberries. Country Garden Montessori School took the tour Wednesday, and school owner Claudia Vickers said the kids learn a lot on the farm.
“It’s a wonderful, hands-on experience,” she said. “They learn about the environment, really.”
Picking strawberries is fun and relaxing for families, so they might not think about how much work farmers put into growing the fruit, said Brandon Parker, commercial horticulture agent at the Johnston County Cooperative Extension Service.
“It can be a competitive time of the year,” he said of the weeks before the first berries ripen. “In that last month, a lot of them have put in a lot of hours trying to get ahead of the next grower down the road.”
For example, Parker said some farmers take the time to cover their strawberry plants in advance of frosty mornings in April and March. That extra effort protects the fragile flowers from freezing and has been known to pay dividends. One local grower told Parker that covering his plants allowed him to start picking about a week before competitors.
“That let him be the first one to the plate with berries,” Parker said.
Farmers also use technology to get a leg up on the competition, Parker said. Many of the more tech-savvy growers take advantage of social media and the Web, which have made advertising a lot easier than in years past.
“It used to be just signs and word of mouth,” Parker said.
Pick your own strawberries
Beasley’s Berries – 428 Peele Road, Clayton; 919-553-6928.
Johnson Farms – 11838 N.C. 210 North, Angier; 919-427-2976, 919-427-2821.
Middle Creek Farms – 1091 Berea Church Road, Four Oaks; 919-934-6707.
Smith’s Nursery – 443 Sanders Road, Benson; 919-934-1700, 919-934-9068; UPickBerries.com.
Wilson’s Family Market – 5368 Wilson’s Mill Road, Clayton; 919-934-6918, 919-291-8722.