An exceptionally warm winter, a warm spring and few heavy rains in either season all contributed to a very early start of strawberry harvest in North Carolina.

And as April came to an end, there seemed a very real possibility that Tar Heel strawberry growers might enjoy a very long harvest season.

“This could be one of the longest seasons we ever had,” said grower Roger Ball, Raleigh, N.C., on April 24. “Harvest started a good two weeks early, and now I have a lot of green berries and a lot of flowers. So we should have another 30 days or so of harvest.”

Another factor was that frosts were minimal: Ball reported two in Raleigh, two were also reported in Wilson just to the east of Raleigh and four were reported at the Piedmont (N.C.) Research Station in Salisbury, 120 miles to the west.

Andy Myers, crop research operations manager at the Salisbury station, said late in April that strawberries on the station were two to three weeks early, and the last full week of April was probably the peak week. “The fruit set was beginning to slow down. But plants were still setting some blooms, so we will have some to pick in May.”

But unlike Ball, he thought this season might actually wind up being a short one in his area, with perhaps only four weeks of significant harvest. “We would like to have five or six,” he said.

The quality of the Salisbury crop is good, the numbers are good, and the size of the fruit is good, said Myers. “And we didn't have much problem with disease,” he said.

As mentioned before, frosts were minimal. But one came relatively late, on the night of April 23 and 24. “I started to pump water at 1:45 a.m. and cut it off at 7 a.m.,” said Myers. But it appeared there was no damage.    

In one leading North Carolina strawberry county, Wilson County, Extension horticulture agent Billy Little said late in April he wasn't sure if the season would last more weeks than normal. One way or another, he thought yields might fall way off at the end of harvest because so much of the fruit got ripe at one time.

But consumers didn't seem to be complaining. They liked the early availability of strawberries this year, said Little. “They were ready for them when they arrived at market, and they bought heavily.”

The heavy early fruit load all but assures the final yield for the crop in Wilson County should be  extremely good, he said.

Marketing problem

The earliness of the strawberry crop created a bit of a marketing problem in some areas, said Jeremy Pattison, North Carolina State University strawberry breeder.

Statewide, the yield this year may be very different from the last two years. “We had two “under-yielding” crops, said Pattison. “This one is going to put us back to normal in terms of yield, and consumers will be will be pleased with the quality and supply.”

Harvest of the strawberry crop in North Carolina normally stops around the first week of June, said Pattison. “After that, it gets so hot the plant stops being reproductive and the growth goes into the runners and the canopy.”

One of the worst problems for Ball was a heavy rain on April 28 that came after an extended dry period in Wake County. “The plants sucked up a lot of water. That led to some fruit which was juicy but did not hold up very well,” he said. “That fruit deteriorated quickly. I had to remove it because it could create a disease problem.”

An oddity of this season in the Raleigh area was that there were no big rains over the winter and then no big rains during the season until late April.

A few years ago, strawberry growers were excited about the possibility of growing their fruit in “high tunnels”— long, unheated plastic-covered hoop structures with frames of thin wall pipe watered with trickle irrigation.

Benefits that might be derived included a much longer harvest season, much higher yields and production at nontraditional times of the year.

It may yet be possible to gain all those advantages, but Pattison said that point hasn’t been reached yet.

“After several years of research, we are not seeing a high enough yield increase to justify the very high cost of constructing tunnels,” he said. But marketing could increase the return from tunnels and make it more affordable.

“By early forcing of the crop, we consistently get a week advantage by using the tunnels. If we were to regularly have strawberries ready for sale in early April, that might increase the interest of large scale buyers,” he said.

“I think consumers would be receptive to berries that are ready on that timing, but some education will be required.”

That might be a bit of a challenge. Because most strawberries in north Carolina are direct marketed it is difficult to train your customers, he said.

chrisbickers@gmail.com