March 30, 2012

Strawberries make an early appearance in 2012

Here’s another benefit of this warm early spring: Luscious red strawberries filled local fields in March for the first time in a couple of decades.

Cottle Strawberry Farm let pickers fill a few buckets at its pick-your-own field at 2533 Trotter Road in Richland County on March 20 and opened for good on March 22. “This time last year, there were several of us staying up all night trying to keep them from freezing,” said Jennifer Jordan, who manages the Trotter Road operation.

By contrast, this year they have had to mist the plants briefly in the middle of 80-degree days to cool them down and encourage new blooms.

James R. Sease Farms in Gilbert opened its pick-your-own fields on U.S. 1 for two days two weeks ago, three days last week and “we’re pretty much wide open right now,” said owner Mike Keisler. “That’s about 10 to 14 days early.”

Traditionally, the first red wave of strawberries washes across Midlands fields in a window from April 1 through April 15. Last year, the first ones ripened closer to April 15, slowed by cold spells that sent temperatures into the low 30s on March 29 and April 6.

While it’s too early to rule out a late frost, the daily lows are forecast to be in the 50s for the next 10 days, with highs in the 80s. Perfect pickin’ weather.

Gisela Corpis was among those taking advantage of the early season on Wednesday. “I was surprised when I saw the (Cottle) stand on Forest Drive,” Corpis said. “I said ‘Well, if they’re selling them here, they must be open for picking.”

She enjoys the fun of picking her own then making jam to share with neighbors. Her neighbors look forward to her gifts of jam, and they won’t have to wait as late in the year this time.

Almost all spring and early summer crops on an early schedule, according to Ansley Rast, marketing coordinator with the S.C. Department of Agriculture. Strawberries were out before Easter this year, and early peaches should be ripe long before the traditional Memorial Day start. Some farmers already have started planting early summer corn.

In general, the heat caused few farm problems. Some wheat farmers had to plow under and replant because their crop was maturing too early. And some fruit farmers are worried their peaches and strawberries might not have received the cold temperatures that generate ideal sweetness. But customers commenting on the Cottle Farms Facebook page have remarked on how yummy the berries have been in the past week.

Keisler has a couple of worries. Could the early warmth lead to consistent temperatures in the 90s in late April and early May, shutting down the strawberry crop several weeks early? And could he have trouble marketing his early berries during a period when consumers aren’t used to seeing local strawberries in the stores?

“I might be in somebody else’s time slot,” Keisler said.

The strawberries certainly are early. Jordan couldn’t remember if Cottle ever had opened its local fields in March, but a customer recently set her straight on that. The customer told Jordan that on March 19, 1992, she went into labor picking strawberries at a local Cottle farm.

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