In a strawberry season unlike any other, lovers of the fruit are settling for half-filled buckets and encountering locked gates at pick-your-own farms in the Triangle. The berry deprivations are the result of last month’s deep freeze that is causing a temporary region-wide strawberry shortage.
Some local pick-your-own farms opted to stay closed Sunday, having nothing left to sell after Saturday pickers stripped their rows of all ripe fruit. Growers say they don’t expect consistently abundant quantities of strawberries until late April or early May.
As it happens, late April is when strawberry picking season normally gets underway here. But an unseasonably warm February fooled strawberry plants into blooming early and pushed out fruit nearly a month ahead of schedule. The berries that survived the mid-March freeze are in short supply and high demand among zealous berry seekers.
“Picked us completely out yesterday,” said Darin Jones, owner of DJ’s Berry Patch in Apex. “What I saved is what I was selling off.”
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DJ’s started selling strawberries March 27, its earliest opening ever. Jones estimates he saved at least half of the berries growing on his 6 acres by irrigating strawberry rows when temperatures dropped below freezing last month. Irrigating the blooms and young fruit insulates the forming berries in a coating of ice and keeps the fruit secure at around 32 degrees, even when the outside temperature is 10 degrees colder.
Like other growers, Jones found that when the thermometer dropped into the low 20s, high winds sprayed water back onto sprinkler nozzles, congealing his sprinklers in ice. It was the mass failure of the sprinklers that led to the widespread loss of strawberries.
“I got dead blooms,” said Danny Page, owner of Page Farms in Raleigh, of the post-freeze damage.
This year is so unusual. February was our March, and March was our February.
Danny Page, Page Farms owner
Page guesses he lost 40 percent of his early fruit crop. That loss on 3 acres amounts to thousands of dollars of lost sales, he said, but he hopes to make up it with pumpkins this fall.
“This year is so unusual,” Page said. “February was our March, and March was our February.”
Strawberry growers did not report the loss of any plants, just the early fruit. Strawberry plants have since resumed their normal cycle of continuous blooming and fruiting, until the heat of June cools their reproductive ardor.
David Pope, owner of Pope’s Strawberries in Knightdale, said he contended with his 33 sprinklers through that frigid March night and didn’t stop working until 10 a.m. the next day. He said he knocked ice off the sprinkler heads with a wrench, but the ice would re-form within 10 to 15 minutes.
“I’ve been growing strawberries 35 years and never had anything like this,” Pope said.
He said he saved most of his fruit and started selling April 3, about two-and-a-half weeks early.
“I had 30 pounds of ripe berries in March,” Pope said. “I’ve never had 10 pounds in 35 years combined in March.”
Strawberries were not the only casualties of the big freeze.
Terry Pulley, owner of the 19.6-acre Granny Pearl’s Farm in Zebulon, said he lost about 75 percent of his plums, 60 percent of his pears and 50 percent of his peaches.
He said his blackberries, blueberries and pawpaws emerged unscathed, in many cases because they bloomed after the freeze.
Pulley noted that growers can tolerate some loss because overproducing fruit trees tend to grow smaller fruit and need to be thinned out.
But Pulley observed: “We got a lot more thinning out than we needed.”