Mary Ann Castronovo Fusco

The Star Ledger

Here comes the sun, and the strawberries

The classic Beatles tune notwithstanding, strawberry fields are not forever. But the next two to three weeks are “prime for picking,” according to Jim Giamarese of Giamarese Farm in East Brunswick. That’s assuming the cloudy skies that have regularly sent rain our way since mid-May clear up long enough to let the sunlight in to ripen the fruit.

“Wet, rainy weather is never a good thing; it’s bad for the fruit and the pickers,” said Peter Nitzsche, an agricultural agent with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Morris County. Damp conditions spread fungal diseases, such as gray mold and leather rot, which scars the scarlet berries with tan spots. “You need the rain to make the berries grow, but excess at a time is too much,” said Carol Davis of Stony Hill Gardens in Chester, who plans to sell her strawberries at her farm stand and at area tailgate markets from mid-June through early July. Other growers, such as Peaceful Valley Orchards in Pittstown, are planning strawberry festivals in early June to entice visitors to their fields.

Cool rainy weather delayed the start of the pick-your-own strawberry season in the northern part of the state, but down south growers have been harvesting strawberries since mid-month. Still, the rain has had a dampening effect. “It’s limited the shelf life of the strawberries, no doubt about it,” said Dennis Donio of Donio Farms in Hammonton. He plans to sell his fruit at his roadside markets and, in an effort to make it easier for commuters to buy local produce, at the Absecon and Forked River rest stops on the Garden State Parkway.

Getting chain stores to stock locally grown berries, which are available from only about late May to early July at the most, is difficult. “It seems that we bang heads with California all the time,” said Donio. George Cassaday of Cassaday Farms in Monroeville, however, supplies area Wegmans stores with his berries for about a month each spring. “As a chain, our customers appreciate it when we can bring in locally grown produce,” said Jeanne Colleluori, a spokeswoman for the Rochester, NY-based supermarkets. New Jersey grows about 300 acres of strawberries. Last year’s crop of 1.4 million pounds was worth $3 million, according to the NJ Department of Agriculture.

Two of the varieties best suited to wholesale production are Sweet Charlie and Chandler, which are widely planted in Florida and California, respectively. Like their colleagues down south and out west, many local growers cultivate these types using a plasticulture system, whereby the plants are grown on raised beds covered in black plastic that helps warm up the ground quickly in early spring while controlling weeds and disease.

Smaller growers and those who operate pick-your-own operations, particularly in the northernmost sectors of the state where plasticulture isn’t practical, prefer to grow varieties that have been bred to thrive in the northeast. These are usually planted in matted rows, half-foot-wide swaths of soil separated by a layer of rye straw that protects the plants from winter damage and discourages weeds. But some farmers also grow them on plastic. These varieties include Earliglow, Jewel, Raritan, Brunswick, Northeaster, Darselect, and Allstar. “They’re not designed to spend days on a truck or an airplane. They’re designed to pick, take home, and eat,” said Sam Race of H.A. Race & Son Strawberry Hill in White Township.

One of the easiest ways to best exploit the sun-ripened flavor of locally grown strawberries is in a cold soup, said Phyllis L. Marchand, the mayor of Princeton Township. Her favorite recipe, which was published in a NJ Department of Agriculture cookbook, calls for neither yogurt nor cream. The delicate and refreshing result can work as a first course or as “an interesting dessert, with some nice cookies,” she said.

Even under the best growing conditions, however, locally produced strawberries won’t be around for long. “It’s a short season,” said Giamarese. “If people want them they need to hop to ’em.”