N.C. farmers growing new winter berries
by Felicia Kitzmiller
(Spartanburg) Herald Journal
December 27, 2012 12:00 AM | 920 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
SPARTANBURG, S.C. — No need to wait to buy berries shipped in from Florida. Sweet, fresh strawberries are available now from growers in upstate N.C..

The height of strawberry season is typically in the spring, but at Strawberry Hill USA, they are bringing in the big, delicious berries by the bucketful despite the chilly temperatures. A new type of plant and a lot of hard work is making the offseason harvest possible.

“We do whatever it takes to remain a farmer and have a supply for our customers,” said James Cooley, whose family has owned and run the farm for three generations. “We’ve been lucky; we’re in a part of the country where the customers are real good to you, so we try to take care of them.”

Cooley planted six acres of his farm with the new breed of strawberry plant back in September, and they recently started producing fruit. Every three days, they harvest 1,200 pounds of strawberries.

“They are fantastic. The thing is, they are big and pretty,” he said.

Strawberry Hill USA is one of three local farms working with the new breed of winter strawberries this year, according to Clemson Extension Agent Andy Rollins. Bob Hall of Bush-n-Vine has been growing them for several years, and Ron Edwards of Spring Farm started growing them this year, too, Rollins said.

Standard strawberries are planted in October and require a long night and a short day to develop. The new plants, which were bred in California, can be planted sooner because they grow regardless of the balance of sunlight.

Cooley said the winter berries are an experiment and are not intended to replace his traditional spring berries. He tried winter berries several years ago and wasn’t happy with the result.

“They were excellent in the fall, but not very tasty in the spring,” he said.

Even the day-neutral plants produce more berries in the spring, so the second harvest is critical for growers, Rollins said.

“That second crop is really critical to whether it will be financially viable for James and the other farmers,” he said.

Growing fruit in the depths of winter is challenging because the flowers are very sensitive and will die at temperatures below 25 degrees. Cooley protects the plants with sheets, sometimes double layered, but it still gets precariously close to the coldest the plants can handle. Thursday night, he estimated the fields were about 27 degrees. When it’s time to pick the berries, the sheets — which are weighted by hundreds of bags of rocks — have to be peeled back and then put back in place.

“What they are doing is not easy for Joe Blow,” Rollins said.

A lot goes into producing the berries, which sell for $5 per pound.

“They are more expensive because way more goes into them,” Cooley said.

Despite a higher price tag, he said the berries have been selling well.

Patty Budai from Green Creek, N.C., and her granddaughter, Stella, recently visited Strawberry Hill USA Cafe looking for strawberries.

They bought some in the summer and loved them. Then, they heard there was a winter variety available.

“They are really good,” Budai said. “They are big and juicy, and they are local and we love to shop local.”

Stella, 7, is a bit of a strawberry connoisseur.

“They weren’t exactly too sweet. They had a little tartness to them,” she said.

If the winter remains mild, Cooley said Strawberry Hill USA will be producing berries until about the middle of January. They are available at the Strawberry Hill USA Café in Chesnee, the Strawberry Hill USA market in Gaffney, Hobo Hollar and Bellews Market in Spartanburg and Concord Produce Market in Anderson.

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