Finding and using 
locally produced food
Visit our Bookstore

Nesco American Harvest Food Dehydrator

more kitchen wares

Farmers' Market Desserts
By Jennie Schacht

Strawberry Harvests Forever

 The thing about strawberries that impressed a British immigrant and regular visitor to California's farmers markets was that they always seemed to be in season. The mountains of sweet, deep-red berries in March meant that surely that was the height of the harvest. But no, strawberries were even more abundant and delectable in April. In May, they were better, more abundant--and cheaper--than ever. The visitor toured farmers markets regularly from March to October and marveled, there is "not a day during that whole time that strawberries grown by open culture are not gracing the market stands of our cities."

Though contemporary strawberry genetic engineers like to take credit for California's interminable strawberry season, the British shopper's account appeared 138 years ago--in an 1858 edition of "The California Culturist," a magazine for growers of rare and unusual fruit that began publication that year. The outstanding varieties of that era: the British Queen, followed by the Peabody, Ajax, Ruby and Jenny Lind. The price: $1 a pound in April of 1858, falling to 15 cents a pound by May 24. These days, modern hybrids have indeed stretched the season until it is practically year-round. But the climate deserves much of the credit for California's extended strawberry harvest. A thousand miles up the coast in the Pacific Northwest, the harvest lasts for just two months, observes Rick Gean, whose family grows strawberries and many other vegetables in Oxnard and sells the produce at Harry's Berries stands at more than a dozen farmers markets throughout Southern and Central California.

Like clockwork tied to the number of hours of daylight, the peak of the harvest on his farm has always fallen on practically the same day, Gean says his father-in-law, who has been growing berries in Oxnard for 30 years, tells him. "It doesn't matter whether you plant them a few weeks earlier or later, the peak of the harvest is always April 12 to 15," Gean says.

Not that the vicissitudes of weather don't come into play. "The winter of 1995 was terrible weatherwise for berries," says Gean. "This year [1996] has been a pretty good year for us as far as rain is concerned." Only one winter storm was problematic, wiping out one whole picking by keeping harvesters out of the fields for a couple of weeks. But most storms were well staggered, with time in between for the fields to dry out.

By all accounts for more than a century, strawberries are at the peak of perfection in April and May. Earlier in the season, winter rains can make them watery, and the shortage of sun prevents them from attaining maximum sugar content. As summer sets in, the hot sun can turn berries to mush.

Harry's Berries' main variety, the Chandler, will stay in harvest through June. The Seascape, a "day neutral" hybrid developed recently by researchers at the University of California, which fruits irrespective of the length of the day, produces berries year-round, Gean says.

Seascapes have a "mild, sweet, low-acid wild-berry flavor," according to the sign at the Harry's Berries market stand. Sunset magazine's testers certainly were impressed. "Until there's a perfect strawberry, try Seascape," proclaimed the headline on a story about them in the March issue, which hailed the everbearing variety's heavy production of fruit with great taste.

On berry farms that ship their harvest cross country, another variety, the Camarosa, has taken Southern California by storm this year, coming from nowhere a couple of years ago to account for a majority of strawberry acreage by now. They start bearing fruit a few weeks earlier than Chandlers. But the Camarosas' main claim to fame is that they are tough and durable, characteristics that please long-distance shippers but take their toll on taste. Nonetheless, East Coast consumers are singing the praises of the Camarosa. They've received a far different reception closer to home at farmers markets a few hours away from the strawberry fields.

Gean tried a few rows of Camarosa's last year. "Personally, I'm not impressed," he says. Breeders usually tinker with new releases as time goes by. "They might get a little better in the future, so we'll continue to experiment," Gean says. But for now, Harry's Berries is sticking with Chandlers. It's a decision with which many farmers market shoppers concur. Shoppers in the know search out Chandlers, asking for them by name.

This article first appeared in the May 1996 issue of Farmers Market Monthly.

Why Organic Berries Cost So Much

Even under the best of circumstances, "Growing strawberries is a real high stakes game," says Jim Cochran, a grower from the Santa Cruz area who sells at Northern California farmers markets. "You're talking $30,000 an acre" in production costs, Cochran said in a session on organic strawberries at the Ecological Farming conference earlier this year. "You make a mistake on broccoli and it costs you $822. You make a mistake with strawberries and it just cost you $10,000. So it's real nerve-wracking."

Organic growers don't have to pay for all the chemicals used on conventional berry crops. A typical grower will use methyl bromide, chloropicrin, Captan, malathion, Diprom, Vendex, Kelthane, and Avermectin to bring a crop of berries to market. But organic growers have to shoulder higher costs for labor and tractor time to keep the weeds down. And organic yields are lower: to be precise, 39 percent, 30 percent and 28 percent lower, from year one to year three of a three-year field trial, the results of which were recently published in California Agriculture magazine.

Organic growers also have to swallow the lost production during crop cycles when the fields are kept in fertility-boosting cover crops. All told, growing organic strawberries costs farmers about twice as much as growing conventional berries.

"You get a lot of people who say I'm willing to pay 20 cents more for a basket of organic strawberries," says Cochran. "But it costs a lot more than that."

This article first appeared in the May 1996 issue of Farmers Market Monthly.

Copyright 1997 In Season