Early warm temps speed strawberries

Published 10:38 pm Thursday, April 5, 2012

Ryan Williams, left, and Marvin Eskew inspect a strawberry field on Joshua Lane. The fruit is coming in earlier than normal, but Williams says the end result is still in the hands of Mother Nature.

Suffolk strawberry fields are set to be bursting with ripe fruit in a matter of days — much earlier than normal — after an unusually warm winter and early start to spring temperatures.

At Faith Farms’ two patches on Joshua Lane and Raleigh Drive, the fruit should come in two weeks early, strawberry grower Ryan Williams said.

“We started the last weekend of April last year,” he said. “It’s Mother Nature — she’s in control.”

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Like other strawberry growers, Williams was tipped off that his fields would ripen earlier when they flowered earlier. “We knew about 30 days ago,” he said.

He said the 2-¼ acres of strawberries, which will be sold pre-packed and pick-your-own once they’re ripe, are looking “about average” in terms of yield. But until they are picked, there will be a sense of unease.

“Just as easily as Mother Nature makes the season come in early, she can make it end early,” he said.

Jessica Lilley, nurseryman at Lilley Farms, with about 6-½ acres of strawberries in Bennett’s Creek and Western Branch, says frost could occur this weekend, and there’s not much ripe strawberries detest more.

“We don’t sleep, because we have an irrigation strategy for frost protection,” she said. “The water turns into ice, like little igloos over every strawberry,” protecting them from frost burn, Lilley said.

“If the wind’s blowing, we can’t (irrigate),” she said.

But according to Lilley, the main risk now is hail. “If that happens, we’ll be making a lot of jam,” she said.

Another issue for strawberry growers facing an early harvest is letting people know about it.

Mother’s Day usually heralds strawberry season in the commonwealth, when families venture out to pick ripe fruit, according to the Virginia Farm Bureau.

Williams and Lilley say both operations have started to get the message out. “I’ve started getting some calls; most people are waiting for the news to go and pick as soon as they can,” Williams said.

Lilley has ventured into the world of social media, she says, blogging on Facebook about how the ripening is progressing.

“People are getting excited about it,” she said.