June 27, 2012

Soup to Nuts: Maine strawberry season
ripens early

If you want to lay in a quantity of sweet Maine strawberries, you’d better move fast. It’s peak season as we speak.

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

People tend to think of strawberry season as being short and sweet.

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Chef Carmen Gonzales is celebrating the season with a dessert of strawberry and banana fritters, above, served with vanilla bean ice cream and a red wine sauce. Local farmers say the crop is peaking early.

Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

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Press Herald File Photo

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WE BE JAMMIN'

THE UNIVERSITY OF MAINE Cooperative Extension offers hands-on food preservation workshops that teach all the basics. There's still one class left dedicated to making strawberry jam, taught by master food preserver Kate McCarty.

WHAT: Hot Water Bath Canning and Freezing: Low-Sugar Strawberry Jam

WHEN: 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. July 10, 2012

WHERE: University of Maine Cooperative Extension, 75 Clearwater Dr., Suite 104, Falmouth

HOW MUCH: $10 (scholarships are available)

TO REGISTER: Call 781-6099 or email lois.elwell@maine.edu

PICK YOUR OWN

HERE'S A SAMPLING of farms in southern Maine where you can pick your own strawberries. It's a good idea to call ahead, because farms occasionally close for a day to let berries ripen. This year, however, berries are ripening so fast that farms may be closed to pickers altogether by the time you're ready to head into the fields. Bottom line? Always call first.

IF YOU'RE LOOKING for certified organic strawberries this year, check your local farmers markets. Organic pick-your-own strawberry operations are rare in southern Maine. Most people in this part of the state go to Nancy Stedman's Little Flower Farm in Buxton, but Stedman said she had an issue with her supplier this year and won't be offering u-pick strawberries. Stedman said she's had more than 100 phone calls from berry pickers in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts searching for certified organic u-pick fields, and she pledges that she'll plant even more organic strawberries than usual next year to satisfy the demand. To check on her farm's berries next year, call 929-3967 or go to littleriverflowerfarm.com The next closest organic u-pick strawberries appear to be in Dresden. You'll find that farm's information below.

CAPE ELIZABETH

Maxwell's Farm

Strawberry fields are off Two Lights Road

Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Friday, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday. Always closed Sundays. Cash or checks only.

Strawberry hotline: 799-3383

William. H. Jordan Farm

21 Wells Road

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Call first.

Strawberry hotline: 767-2740

Alewives Brook Farm

83 Old Ocean House Road, Route 77

Hours: 9 a.m. until sunset, usually around 7 or 7:30 p.m.

Business Number: 799-7743

DRESDEN

Goranson Farm

250 River Road

Hours: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day except Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Organic berries.

Strawberry hotline: 737-8834

GORHAM

Ahlquist Farm Stand

20 Small Pond Road

Hours: 6 a.m. to 12 p.m. Monday to Friday

Strawberry hotline: 839-4080; few berries left, so call first.

LIMINGTON

Doles Orchard

187 Doles Ridge Road

Hours: 6 a.m. to noon and 5 to 8 p.m. daily, except when closed to ripen

Strawberry hotline: 793-4409

NEW GLOUCESTER

Pineland Farms/Gillespie Farms Division

752 Mayall Road

Hours: 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily. Ten percent senior discount on Wednesdays for pickers ages 62 and older. No dogs.

Strawberry hotline: 657-2877

NORTH BERWICK

Riverside Farm Stand and Greenhouse

Five miles north of South Berwick on Route 4

Hours: 8 a.m. to noon and 3 to 6 p.m. daily

Strawberry hotline: 676-2648

SANFORD

Lavigne Strawberry Farm

158 Whichers Mill Road

Hours: 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. No credit cards.

Strawberry hotline: 324-5497

WELLS

Spiller Farm

85 Spiller Farm Lane

Hours: 8 a.m. to noon Monday to Thursday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday

Strawberry hotline: 985-2575

This year, it's going to be really short.

And sweet? Well, it's getting there.

The heart of strawberry season in Maine usually stretches between Father's Day and the Fourth of July. This year, the crop is peaking early, and there's some doubt as to whether there will be many berries left in southern Maine by the time Independence Day rolls around, especially for people who want to pick a lot for jams and for freezing.

"My advice to people is to get out a little earlier this year to get what you want, and certainly call the farmer ahead of time to see how things are going," David Handley, a small-fruit specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said in an interview after last week's stretch of hot weather. "I've been out in the fields for the last couple of days, and I've been amazed how two days of temperatures approaching the 90s will ripen strawberries so quickly."

The season started a little early as well, anywhere from a week ahead of schedule to just a day or two, depending on the location of the farm.

Handley said the way things are going, a lot of growers, especially in southern Maine, are going to be lucky to have ripe fruit available for picking on the Fourth.

Edward Ahlquist, owner of Ahlquist Farm Stand in Gorham, only has about an acre planted in strawberries. He opened to the public June 15, and a week later the berries were "fast dissipating." He said he's already gotten calls from larger growers wanting to know if he has extra berries to sell.

"I'm not sure one day to the next whether we'll be having berries," Ahlquist said.

Earl Bunting, owner of Doles Orchard in Limington, said on Friday he thinks his strawberry fields had about another two weeks left.

"It started early, and it will definitely end early," Bunting said. "It's going to be a fairly compressed season. The weather has kind of conspired against us."

Handley said the season actually would have peaked even earlier, had it not been for the long stretch of rain we received in the spring. All that rain basically put the brakes on berry ripening.

Bill Spiller of Spiller Farm in Wells said he opened his three acres of strawberries to pickers on June 7, which was "very early." He said he hopes to have berries available for picking through this weekend.

Maxwell's Farm in Cape Elizabeth opened June 19.

"The usual is three weeks plus of picking, and I just don't see that happening," said Bill Bamford, owner of Maxwell's. "Unfortunately, it's now or never."

Some farmers have been growing late-ripening varieties of strawberries that could help extend the short season a little bit, Handley said.

"Up until a few years ago, we really were hurting for good late-ripening varieties that did well here in Maine," he said. "But with some recent introductions from New York and especially Canada, we've now got a couple of varieties that will keep the season going a little bit longer. Usually these would be a bonus for us at the tail end of a good season, but this year I think they're going to kind of be coming in when we need them."

What about the quality of this year's berries? They started off not so tasty, but by last week were starting to sweeten up.

"The good new is that with this sunshine, I've seen the flavor improving over the last few days," Handley said. "The flavor hasn't been bad, but it's been a little bit mild because sunshine is what makes plants make sugar."

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