Sweet! Heat of spring brings on strawberries

The heat also could cut short the season for the fruit.
GROVE CITY, Ohio (AP) -- The state's strawberry growers are facing a short season this year because late freezes in April and May delayed crop development and recent temperatures in the 90s have hastened ripening.
Central Ohio temperatures have hit the upper 80s and lower 90s for almost a week, cutting the season short. There is a bright side, however: The heat likely will make the strawberries sweeter, said Tom Sachs, executive director of the Ohio Fruit Growers Society.
"With this hot, dry weather, your quality is going to be as good or better," he said, explaining that dry conditions allow the fruit's natural sugars to develop more adequately.
In an ideal season, a strawberry harvest can start as early as May 20 and stretch until June 25, although the peak dates vary for different berry varieties and for different areas of the state, with southern Ohio ripening before the north.
The frost delayed this year's harvest by at least a week, and, if the heat continues, it could bring it to a quick end, said Mike Pullins, executive director of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation.
Berry market
The shortened strawberry season may produce a temporary glut in the Ohio-area market, but that could be offset by demand from consumers impatient after the season's week-long delay, Pullins said.
However, price stability is strong in the strawberry market, so the pinch probably won't reach into consumers' wallets, Sachs said.
At Circle S Farms in Grove City, Ethel Sullivan charges $2.90 for a quart of berries, but she opens her fields to do-it-yourselfers, who can take away a quart for $1.50.
About half of the farm's berries are harvested by customers, often children from summer camps who take hay rides around the 14-acre farm before staining their fingers and lips in one of the three berry fields.
The other half of the crop is sold in the roadside market or used to make preserves, salsa and pie filling, Sullivan said.
Thom Haubert, a 10-year customer, showed his children Wednesday how to find the best berries. They lifted leaves and checked for white spots on the fruit.
"These are the best for jam," he said, showing off a handful of the honeoye variety.
Haubert said his jams regularly win blue ribbons at the Ohio State Fair. He said he was frustrated by the delay in the harvest but pleased with this year's yield.
Sullivan's crops weren't damaged by the frost, and she's been leaving her irrigation system running late into the night to keep the fields cool. Irrigation costs for farmer can be as low as 5 percent of the cost of production, but Bob Tritten, the southeast region horticulture agent at Michigan State University in Flint, estimated farmers in Ohio and Michigan will spend closer to 15 percent keeping their fields wet this season.
Sullivan said she hopes to have berries through June 25, and she smiled showing off some green berries that have yet to turn.
Her fields are full of red berries, and, if the heat continues, she estimated Circle S will produce until June 19.
Harvest heat
National Weather Service forecasts put central Ohio temperatures in the high 80s through at least Tuesday of next week.
Steve Polter, 27, of Polter's Berry Farm in Fremont, said they started picking strawberries on their farm about 35 miles southeast of Toledo on Memorial Day.
The heat this week hasn't been good but he said the spring was perfect.
"I couldn't ask for anything better," Polter said. "It just made for a wonderful crop."
Most states in the area are experiencing similar heat, but the typical strawberry season varies with even minute climate changes, so Ohio is getting hit just as its berries are peaking.
Pickers are about to pack up in Kentucky, where a few 90-degree days are closing out the season.
"Everything is getting ripe," said Jamae Bray of Bray Orchards in Bedford, Ky. She expects her harvest to end this weekend but said the cool spring helped Kentucky farmers, who didn't have to battle over-ripe berries in their first two weeks of picking.
The cool wasn't as kind in Iowa, however, where a late, hard freeze in May caused some heavy losses for growers who didn't have irrigation systems, said Mark Gleason, an extension plant pathologist at Iowa State University in Ames.
Conditions have been more temperate since then, and, with the berries just beginning to turn, Gleason said it should be a good season.

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