Weather accelerates strawberry-picking season, local growers say

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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It wouldn’t be a good idea to procrastinate this year on buying local strawberries for jam or preserves.

This year’s strawberries are already a delicious-looking red, and local growers advise buyers to head to the farm store or farmers market before it’s too late.

“Strawberries are coming in the earliest I have ever seen them in my life, and I have been growing strawberries since 1956,” said Joe Beaudoin of Joe’s Place Farms, 701 N.E. 112th Ave.

Beaudoin says his farm began picking on May 16, in sharp contrast to last year when only a few berries were ready to pick even by June 1.

The same is true at most other Southwest Washington berry farms. At Thoeny Farms in Woodland, picking began May 18, and the crop probably won’t stretch into July, said Erin Thoeny. Those who wait until school is out or — worse — the Fourth of July to buy berries may find themselves outwitted by nature, she said.

“People aren’t mentally ready to do jams and freeze,” said Thoeny, who sells berries at the Vancouver Farmers Market and other mobile locations. “If they wait, there won’t be any.”

The long spell of unseasonably warm weather in early May quickly ripened local strawberries, and sped growth on other fruits that also will be ready to harvest much earlier than usual, according to local farmers.

Beaudoin said the berries were “a little slow waking up” before the unusual heat spell, and then wanted to blossom quickly in the warm, dry weather.

“I was really worried because the berries were all blossoms on top of the plant, which didn’t have enough leaf area,” he said. The farmers poured water onto the top of the plants and took the unusual step of applying spring fertilizer.

Next came the wave of cool weather and powerful rainstorms, providing much-needed moisture and slowing growth. Berries haven’t had the mold that often accompanies spring rain during warmer weather, said Bill Zimmerman, owner of Bi-Zi Farms, 9504 N.E. 119 St.

Zimmerman is rare among local growers in not having berries ready for harvest, since he’s planted late-developing varieties on his farm.

“The cold weather stopped the berries in their tracks,” he said. “It was like putting them in a freezer.”

He expects to begin harvest by the end of the week, still much earlier than usual.

Local growers are selling berries by the flat for just over $20 to about $25 per flat. Growers say they haven’t yet set U-pick prices.