March 16, 2010

Berry season: Short but sweet


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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer... Bill Willey of Dover, N.H. picks strawberries in a pick-your-own field at Riverside Farm in North Berwick on Wednesday, July 2, 2008. FOR NEIGHBORS

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer... Adrienne Dwyer, 9, of Dover, N.H, picks strawberries in a pick-your-own field at Riverside Farm in North Berwick on Wednesday, July 2, 2008. FOR NEIGHBORS

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Staff Writer

SANFORD — All year, Albert and Pat Lavigne think about strawberries.

The two brothers are third-generation owners of Lavigne's Strawberry Farm on Whichers Mill Road in Sanford. The farmers cultivate 12 acres of strawberries on flat, sandy land where their grandfather once ran a small dairy farm.

Throughout the year, the brothers mow, spray and fertilize this labor-intensive crop. They grow and bale straw to mulch the berries and tend to an extensive irrigation system to keep the berries watered and protected from frost during the spring growing season.

Their work is all in preparation for the period that usually runs from mid-June to early July when the berries are red, juicy and ready for picking. That's when hundreds of people arrive at the farm to kneel among the rows of low greenery and fill quart containers with strawberries to take home and use in shortcake, jam, and other favorite recipes.

But strawberries are a fickle fruit and there are many things that can damage a crop, despite a farmer's best efforts. This year, the Lavignes said their berries were growing well until a few days into the picking season when a brief hail storm pelted the soft fruit with marble-sized chunks of ice.

''That's one thing always dreaded during strawberry season,'' said Elaine Laine, who lives across the street from the farm and works there during the harvest. ''The day after the hail storm it looked like somebody had thrown quarts of berries down the row.''

After the ice damage, Albert Lavigne said it had been slow going for pickers. The berries still appear plentiful on the bushes but, on closer inspection, many of the fruit appeared pockmarked and soft. ''You can keep one in four,'' Lavigne said. ''The cash register doesn't ring so hard.''

Despite a thin crop, several dozen people were picking berries at the Sanford farm one day recently. A couple people, like Samantha Bentley and her two young children, left in frustration after finding the harvest was not to their liking.

''Last year they were really big and good,'' Bentley said. ''This year they're smushy.''

Other people found the patience to sort through the berries and select the ones worth keeping, even if it took up to an hour per quart. Dorothyanne Donovan of Alfred had set aside six containers. She said she wouldn't stop until she was done because her 12 grandchildren were expecting the strawberry jam she makes every summer.

Though Donovan could find berries in a store, she insists on picking her own. ''When I pick them myself I know they're fresh,'' she said.

Berries may be sparse at Lavigne's farm this year, but there is no shortage of pickers who agree with Donovan. When the strawberries are abundant, the Lavigne brothers said they sometimes see up to 500 customers a day in the picking season. The owner of another nearby strawberry farm said she always has more customers than berries, as well.

A few miles from Lavigne's at Riverside Farm Stand in North Berwick, Lorraine Tuttle said she and her husband were lucky to have avoided hail damage to their three acres of strawberries. Nevertheless, Tuttle said she can't keep up with demand.

''We have been mobbed with pickers,'' she said. ''We have a great crop but they're picking us out.''

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Additional Photos

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer... 'Tis the season for strawberries...and strawberry preserves and strawberry shortcake and strawberry pie. These strawberries were picked by Bob Willey at Riverside Farm in North Berwick on Wednesday, July 2, 2008. FOR NEIGHBORS


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