For Tom Stevenson, June is the most terrifying time of the year.

In Wayne, where he runs Stevenson Strawberry Farm, he’s waiting for all the variables to fall in place so he can declare the strawberry season open for the year.

“It is such a hard decision to make,” Stevenson said.

This year, see-sawing weather conditions haven’t seemed to negatively affect the berries — a pair of central Maine farmers said Monday it’s looking good — but the crop has been coming in this month a bit earlier than usual.

Chuck Underwood, who along with his wife Terry, owns Underwood Strawberry Farm in Benton, said his crop of strawberries has come in at least 10 days early this year. And he’s pleased with how it looks so far.

“With the ice damage we had this year and the cold, I’m very, very surprised to be where we’re at,” Underwood said.

Every year, strawberry growers hop on an emotional roller-coaster that’s fueled by the swings in temperature and moisture, upon which the success of the intense three-week season rests. “If the weather lines up and the fruit lines up, we will do very well this year,” he said Monday.

Dan Dutil speaks with a customer at the produce stand at the Underwood Strawberry Farm in Benton on Monday. Customers can purchase picked berries or pick their own. Owner Chuck Underwood said this years crop is in good shape and at least 10 days earlier than past years. Staff photo by David Leaming

People have already started asking when opening day is.

In a few days (he’s not yet prepared to say exactly when) the berries will have reached the point where enough of them are ripe enough that people can start picking them.

Strawberries are the first fruit crop of the year. The season, which usually starts about the middle of June, is short, and with any luck, sweet. By the Fourth of July, the festivals dedicated to the red, sweet berry have finished and the pick-your-own places are generally picked over and done for the year.

For weeks, Stevenson has been using his drip irrigation system to get water to his thirsty plants during the dry stretch that has extended into June. Once flowers appear, the need for water goes up, he said.

But that’s not the only use water has to his operation. In early May, the overnight temperatures dropped to about 30 degrees, with the cold air pooling on the valley where the strawberry fields are.

“We have a frost alarm,” he said. “When it calls my phone, I go out and turn on the water. The frost season can be pretty intense.”

The water, he said, coats the flowers and forms ice, protecting the strawberry blossoms from frost damage and preserving them so they can form berries.

Even though Stevenson is still monitoring his crop on the southwestern edge of Kennebec County, others are ready to go.

Underwood’s farm is now open for people to come pick berries, and the stands have been open since June 11 or 12. Last year, he said the stands weren’t open until June 23 or 24.

Like Stevenson, he irrigates, and that has helped with this season’s warm, dry conditions.

Strawberries are only a small part of Maine’s annual fruit, tree nut and berry sector.

According to the USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Survey’s 2017 State Agricultural Overview, which in turn references Maine’s State Profile from 2012, the value of that agricultural sector was $114.6 million.

The strawberries that are grown in Maine and the northeast are different from those grown in Florida over the winter and in California for longer periods, both in varieties and growing methods.

Stevenson Farm laborer Sammy Lee harvests two boxes of the first fruit of the season on 12.5 acres of strawberry fields in Wayne on Monday. Farmer Tom Stevenson said the crop “looks good.” Staff photo by Andy Molloy

Kevin Schooley, executive director of the North American Strawberry Growers Association based in Ontario, Canada, said the varieties found at roadside stands, local grocery stores and at pick-your-own farms have adopted to the climate of the northeast.

“In the northeast, ours are planted directly in the soil,” Schooley said. In the Southeast and the West, they are planted on raised beds, he said.

Regardless of method or variety, the season’s success still depends on the weather.

Now that the berries are ripening, Stevenson said he hopes for dry weather. And if it rains, he’s hoping for moderate rains. A pounding rain will damage ripe berries and ruin the harvest.

Both Stevenson and Underwood are aware of season’s short clock.

“I don’t know if we’re gonna make it through the Fourth or not,” Underwood said. Because of how early the crop has come in, lasting through the Fourth of July will be a tight window. He said a typical season for strawberries lasts about four weeks.

Underwood advised anyone interested in picking strawberries at the farm or in buying quarts to eat, freeze or make jam with do it sooner rather than later.

“Every farmer I’ve talked with in southern Maine and central Maine … they’ve all been picking strawberries for a while,” he said.

Stevenson said his farm has different varieties of berry that will produce through the short season.

“If it stays dry with cool nights, we could go four,” he said.

But as of Monday, the start date was still up in the air.

Stevenson advised calling the farm’s strawberry hot line at 685-3532. The outgoing message will give conditions and information on whether the farm will be open. That information is also on the farm’s website and Facebook page.

When the strawberries are done in Wayne, that’s not the end of the of the growing and picking season for Stevenson.

“The peas usually follow a few days behind the berries,” he said.

Staff Writer Colin Ellis contributed to this report.

 

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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