Farmers see a late start to strawberry season

  • Sorrel Hatch and son Wilder Bingham with their strawberries at Upinngil Farm. STAFF PHOTOS/PAUL FRANZ

  • Just-picked organic strawberries from Red Fire Farm in Montague.

  • Ryan Voiland of Red Fire Farm in Montague juggles his organic strawberries Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Strawberries at Upinngil Farm in Gill. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Wilder Bingham, 1-year-old son of Upinngil Farm manager Sorrel Hatch, with fresh picked strawberries at the farm stand in Gill. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 6/14/2019 11:04:36 PM
Modified: 6/14/2019 11:04:21 PM

Strawberries across Franklin County were finally ripe for the picking this week, signaling the beginning of the busiest season of the year for many farmers.

The strawberry season was about a week late this year — as was the case with asparagus last month — due to a cool spring and some erratic weather last year, Upinngil Farm owner Clifford Hatch of Gill said Thursday. 

“Our crop is much lighter because of last year’s abnormal conditions,” Hatch said. “While we were establishing new beds, we had the drought, so we lost a lot of plants during that period. And then when we were renovating our old beds, we had nothing but rain. Between extreme drought and extreme wet last year, our plant numbers this year are way down.” 

Strawberries were picked at Upinngil for the first time Wednesday, Sorrel Hatch, Clifford’s daughter and Upinngil Farm manager, said Thursday. 

“It’s a little late. The spring’s been cool,” she said. “Everything’s just sort of delayed if the temperatures are cooler.” 

Strawberries are wildly popular among locals, Sorrel Hatch said, with punnets flying off the shelves as soon as the season arrives. The farm hires five additional part-time staff solely to pick strawberries during the two- or three-week season.

“The strawberries are a huge draw,” she said. “There’s really no other crop that draws people like strawberries because the season is so limited, the fruit is so special.”

Sorrel Hatch hadn’t yet displayed the “Strawberries” sign on Route 2, When she does, the berries will be cleared out of the farm stand.

“As soon as we put the strawberry sign on Route 2, they come,” Sorrel Hatch said. “We call them the ‘strawberry zombies.’ ”

For many regional farms including Upinngil, strawberry season provides an opportunity to bring visitors to the property for “pick-your-own” sessions. Sorrel Hatch said the weekends are overwhelmingly popular: The farm advertises its first picking day online the night before, and the following morning at 8 a.m., the gates are flooded with pickers. Upinngil hasn’t yet announced its first picking weekend.

While pick-your-own days help to bring locals and others to the farm, they are also useful in removing strawberries from the field, as the fruit is especially perishable.

“When we’ve got them, we need people to pick them,” Sorrel Hatch said. “You have to pick it fresh every morning, or it doesn’t keep. As soon as you put these in the fridge and pull it back out, the shine is gone. Really, you should just eat them. They’ve got like a day.”

Red Fire Farm

Over at Red Fire Farm, based in Montague and Granby, owner Ryan Voiland also said the strawberry season started this week, about a week later than usual.

“This has been cold, so plants are growing slower,” Voiland said. “This year, they’re, I’d say, about a week late.”

Voiland agreed with Sorrel Hatch about the wild popularity of strawberries.

“It is the first big fruit crop that ripens every year,” Voiland said.

While a popular fruit, the financial viability of growing strawberries has given Voiland some pause, he said, due to the extensive costs and labor associated with farming the crop.

“There’s so much labor that goes into them, more than other crops, and then you’ve got to pick them too,” Voiland said.

Voiland’s farm allows guests to pick their own strawberries on weekends during the season. In addition to pick-your-own days, Red Fire Farm is also hosting a “Strawberry Soirée” this Saturday, June 15, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. at its Granby location at 7 Carver St. The event includes tastings of about a dozen strawberry varieties, a walking tour of the farm, stories with puppets, and some strawberries and strawberry shortcakes available for purchase.

Red Fire Farm’s strawberries are grown organically, as all crops there are since Voiland bought the land shortly after graduating from Cornell University. He said growing crops without any herbicides is not an easy task — especially for strawberries, as they are “not very aggressive plants” and grow low to the ground, so “weeds can easily compete with them.”

“Most conventional growers use quite a bit of herbicides in their strawberry management,” Voiland said. “Managing weeds without herbicides in strawberries is a big challenge.”

While Voiland is committed to keeping his farm organic, the label has lost its value in recent years. This is because, in Voiland’s view, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has loosened the requirements for organic farming under the current administration. Calling farms as “organic” if they are not has negatively affected farmers like Voiland, he said, as his farm goes to great lengths and costs to abide by organic farming principles.

“They’re now certifying farms that aren’t really following the original ethic of what organic is all about,” Voiland said. “Which really hurts organic farms like me.”

To improve its ability to grow strawberries organically, Red Fire Farm received a grant last year to find new ways to farm the crop to avoid weeds and manage growing periods, Voiland said. The farm is now experimenting with different colored mulches and fabrics — “plasticulture and matted row systems” — on strawberry fields. Results are positive so far, Voiland said, with the experiment resulting in less weeding, which is usually a constant, laborious task.

“For the most part, we haven’t had to weed at all — much, much less weeding labor,” Voiland said. “The plastic suppresses the weeds.”

Data from the experiment will be collected over the next few weeks, with the farm holding a “twilight tour” to discuss preliminary results at its Montague location, 184 Meadow Road, Thursday, June 20, from 5:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.

For information on the twilight tour, visit https://ag.umass.edu/fruit/events/umasssare-organic-strawberry-twilight-meeting.

Reach Grace Bird at gbird@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 280.


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