Strawberry Season Arrives Early and in Abundance

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[Original article from CALS Communications, Dee Shore]

Strawberry season in North Carolina has arrived earlier than usual this year, and COVID-19 has farmers taking precautions to ensure that consumers have safe access to what promises to be a bountiful harvest.

NC State Extension Specialist Mark Hoffmann says the strawberry harvest will peak in about two weeks and continue into late May or early June, depending on the weather. Right now, he expects the state’s farmers to pick more strawberries this year than they usually do, thanks to a warm winter.

Some farmers – especially those with agritourism operations – are concerned about their 2020 income, Hoffman says. In North Carolina, there are 500 to 700 strawberry operations, and while some sell their produce to wholesale and retail operations, most sell directly to consumers through farmer’s markets, farm stands and u-pick operations.

Practices Change to Account for COVID-19

According to a statement last week to the Southeast Farm Press, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper indicated that the state’s strawberry stands and pick-your-own strawberry farms could continue to operate and serve customers as long as they have social distancing guidelines in place.

That’s good news for farmers who’ve invested significant labor and money into producing an excellent crop, says Hoffmann, an assistant professor with NC State University’s Department of Horticultural Science.

“It’s a really good season this year, so far,” he says. “Farm-based COVID-19 implementations will cost more money. At this point, it’s unclear how much more and how that will translate into losses for farmers.

“But if it stays like this right now, and there are no more restrictions than the current stay-at-home order, then our growers are going to be OK.”

While COVID-19 isn’t a foodborne disease, it can spread through the air and on surfaces. Several farmer’s markets in North Carolina have closed completely, and others are taking steps to keep consumers, farmers and their workers safe by allowing only curbside pickup.

At the same time, farmers who sell strawberries directly from their farms are using internet tools to accept orders and arrange for roadside pickup and even home delivery of fresh berries.

Consumers are encouraged to check with their local farms to find out specific details before visiting. The N.C. Strawberry Association has contact information for strawberry farms on their website.

Extension Emphasizes Safety

Hoffmann and others with NC State Extension have been developing and sharing recommendations aimed at giving consumers safe ways to procure produce from u-pick operations, farm stands and farmer’s markets.

In addition to providing webinars for farmers and farmworkers, Hoffman posts recommendations on NC State Extension’s online strawberry growers’ portal and a special COVID-19 webpage. He also sends updated information to growers directly to growers through email.

The recommendations include providing hand sanitizers or hand-washing stations at u-pick operations and farm stands, requiring employees to wear disposable gloves while handling produce, not accepting cash, and requiring sick employees to stay home.

To make sure visitors abide by social distancing guidelines in place across North Carolina, Hoffmann recommends that farmers with u-pick operations set up different zones within fields as well as separate entrances and exits on different sides of the fields.

“The idea is to keep people separated in the field, so that they’re not all crowded together,” he says.

Hoffmann also encourages farm visitors to keep their distance from others, to keep their hands clean and to wear gloves. Right now, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, also recommends that people wear masks when they are in public.

The Outlook from the Farm

North Carolina Strawberry Association President Jim Warenda says that Hoffmann and his team have done a great job in helping growers take steps to protect the health of their workers and their customers. Warenda is operations manager with FreshPik Produce Inc., a 700-acre farm in Wilson County that markets its produce to a commercial distributor and directly to consumers.

FreshPik recently closed its retail market, Deans Farm Market, to shopping by the public and implemented strict safety rules. Customers must call in or text their orders or print a sheet from the internet that allows them to select the items they want to buy. Then they can drive up to the market, where a worker will greet them at their car.

“Only one person handles the money. Everybody’s wearing rubber gloves, and after every transaction, they’re using hand sanitizer. They are also washing their hands with warm water, 20 seconds, every hour,” Warenda says. FreshPik is also modifying its markets so that when they open, plexiglass will separate workers from customers.

So far, the season is going well for FreshPik, but Warenda is counting on some losses.

“Right now, everything is moving. We have a bumper crop coming up, and our sales are up 27% the last two weeks compared to the same two weeks last year,” he says. “But one thing that is going to hurt us, as well as a lot of the smaller growers in North Carolina, is farm tours.”

FreshPik attracts between 8,000 to 10,000 visitors during strawberry season, many of them with school groups.

“We know that revenue’s already lost,” he says. “We haven’t said we’re not doing pick-your-own yet, but we probably will not, just because of safety.”

Still, he adds, “things could change come May 1, if everything goes well.” That’s when the state’s current stay-at-home order is set to lift.

“This is one of the largest strawberry crops we’ve had probably in the last 10 years – or it’s setting up to be. And it’s really a pretty crop,” Warenda says. “At this time, I think it’s especially important for our local communities to do what they can to support local businesses, including local farms. If not, I think it’s going to be a long time for us to recover.”