While demand for strawberries, particularly pick-your-own offerings, remains strong, this year’s crop in the Midstate appears to be highly variable, farmers say.
Many smaller farms are reporting significant shortfalls in their berry yields, causing them to limit hours or cut their seasons short.
“The whole field is getting picked every time we’re open,” said Erica Lloyd of Cross the Creek Farm in Penn Towship. The strawberry patch is generally open six days a week this time of year, Lloyd said, but has been closed virtually every other day, or has closed early.
“We’re definitely reducing our hours,” Lloyd said. “One day we were completely picked through by 10:30 a.m.”
Eric Bricker, of Bricker’s Strawberries in Monroe Township, likewise described this year’s crop as “lackluster.”
Sue Kaucher, of SK Strawberry Lane in South Middleton Township, also said her farm’s strawberry crop was down from past years.
“Financially, this year is going to be a huge hit,” Kaucher said. “Bottom line, farming is a gamble.”
Poor crops for many of the area’s smaller growers may have pushed the strawberry picking public toward a few of the larger farms that offer pick-your-own berries, as well as commercial sales, such as Oak Grove Farms in Monroe Township.
“We have probably had our best first week that we’ve ever had, or close to it, and it looks like there are still a lot of berries coming in yet,” Oak Grove Farms’ co-owner Bryan Lebo said.
Oak Grove Farms is one of the few Midstate operations that is large enough to do commercial packing, with Oak Grove Farms’ berries found in a number of local grocery stores, although sales directly from the farm are taking up more and more of the crop.
“We used to do more [commercial packing] but we’ve gotten to where we can sell most of our strawberries here,” Lebo said. “Obviously there’s an advantage to moving toward pick-your-own because there’s less labor cost.”
Although the strawberries came in well, Lebo said he was also worried about the unusual spring weather shorting the crop, a fear that seems to have come to fruition for smaller farms.
“We had too much rain, too much cold weather,” Kaucher said.
Many farmers observed the contraction of spring, with cold weather lasting longer before abruptly shifting to summer temperatures, with massive amounts of rain last month.
“I think we were really affected by the rain in May,” Bricker said.
This may also be having an effect on bees, a concern that has been the subject of much scientific research. Both Kaucher and Lloyd said their berries appeared to be under-pollinated this year.
“It could be a weather issue, it could be a bee issue, or likely some combination thereof,” Lloyd said.
“We didn’t see as many bees this year,” Kaucher said. “When I’ve been to growers’ conferences recently, the new topic is looking at climate change and how crops will change and what we’re able to grow in this state will change.”
Local strawberries, intended for near-immediate consumption, are not as hardy as the strawberries grown on large commercial farms. The vast majority of strawberries across the United States come from California, and are bred to withstand transit times.
“This is almost like a different fruit, and a lot of people don’t know that,” Lebo said. Commercial berries are bred to be firmer and generally have lower sugar content, giving them better shelf life, Lebo said, as opposed to the softer, sweeter nature of local berries.
But one year of sub-par strawberries won’t kill most farms, given that most local produce growers aren’t dependent on a single crop, or even a single career.
Lloyd, for instance, has some grain acreage as well as a pumpkin patch that does a brisk fall business. Her husband has a job off the farm, she said, and her children, ages 8 and 14, help as well.
“It’s a difficult season, but we’ll overcome,” she said.