Strawberry lovers, David Handley has a message for you: “Don’t wait.”
If you’ve been dreaming of piling some biscuits or pound cake high with succulent red berries topped with mounds of fresh whipped cream, now’s the time to start thinking about where you’re going to get them.
Whether you pluck them yourself in a sunny field, pick them up from your favorite farm stand or let a local chef do all the work for you, strawberries won’t be around forever.
Thanks to the wacky weather, the season is about two weeks early this year. And if it turns hot and dry, berries will ripen off quickly, and the season could be wrapping up in southern Maine even before the Fourth of July, said Handley, a vegetable and small fruit specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
“We’re going to be in full swing here way ahead of schedule,” Handley said. “In Maine, July Fourth is your strawberry weekend, and you go out there and have a good time. Some growers are already wringing their hands that they’re not going to have a whole lot left come July 4. So the message is, don’t wait, get out there now.”
Of course, just how early the strawberry harvest is and how soon it will wrap up depends largely upon the weather and the location of the farm.
Bill Spiller began picking berries for his store at Spiller Farm in Wells on May 25, his earliest harvest ever. His pick-your-own operation opened a little later. He doesn’t expect to have anything left by Independence Day.
“We’ve been very early, and I think that it will be ending early,” he said.
Maxwell’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth had not yet opened its pick-your-own operation as of last weekend, but still expects to open five to seven days earlier than average.
The earliest the coastal farm has ever opened is June 17, but Bill Bamford said he didn’t think Maxwell’s would break that record this year. Opening day, he said, is always “a moving target,” thanks to the weather.
The growing season has, so far, been “crazy,” Bamford said, laughing. “Anything but normal. We don’t know what normal is anymore around here.”
Strawberries are grown commercially on about 500 to 1,000 acres in Maine. Farmers have seen the demand for fresh Maine strawberries grow along with consumers’ cravings for locally grown foods. But fewer people are picking berries themselves – instead, they prefer to let someone else do the harvesting.
“Strawberries have always been popular,” Spiller said. “I don’t know that we have the turnout for them that we used to because people used to come and pick a lot for jamming and freezing and stuff. And now there’s quite a bit of that, but there’s more people coming just to get some for fresh berries. They don’t pick the volumes that they used to years ago.”
Consumers also want strawberries more than just a few weeks a year, so Maine farmers are using row covers and new varieties of berries that fruit in late summer and fall to stretch the season on both ends.
No matter how you get them – or when you get them – the strawberry season in Maine is short and sweet (or tart, if you like your berries with a little kick), so enjoy them while you can.
“We have strawberry shortcake just about every night they’re in season,” Spiller said. “(My wife) makes the best biscuits, and it’s fantastic.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]