berries

The strawberries growing in Orange County and surrounding areas will ripen and redden fully in about two weeks.

Efland strawberry farmer Howard McAdams Jr. just laughs when asked how he prepares his strawberry fields for the crowds that will be coming in May to pick berries.

“We wave our magic wand,” he said jokingly.

His wife and co-farmer, Karen McAdams, had a more serious reply.

“We mow and weed really well between the rows,” she said. “We’ll also be selling some of our vegetables, Angus beef, lamb and cut flowers at the strawberry patch so people can buy their whole meal and flowers for the table, too.”

This is the 20th strawberry season on McAdams Farm in Efland, and they have their U-Pick operation down to a science. They grow their berries on a piece of land that’s been in the McAdams family since 1914.

But the weather is a factor that the couple can’t control.

Howard McAdams said that last year might have been their worst season ever due to rain. Excessive rain leaves the strawberries soft and swollen, and can lessen flavor.

As the couple prepares to open their acre-and-a-half of U-pick strawberry fields, they’re hoping for a better outcome this season.

“Last year it rained the whole month of May,” Karen McAdams said. “This year we have new low tunnels to put over the berries for bad weather. The sides fold up so that the berries can be picked and then they fold down over the berries if it’s going to rain for a couple of days.”

Right now, the McAdams’ berries are still growing, light green in color and hiding under white blossoms. In a couple of weeks, the berries will be bright red and ready to eat, and the McAdams expect the fruit to peak around Mother’s Day and to last into June.

The farmers said that this past winter was a bit cloudy, chilly and rainy. In spite of that and the heavy rains that Orange County has experienced over the last two weeks, the McAdams said their berries seem to be holding up fine.

“We won’t know about how good the crop is until June,” Howard McAdams said. “But right now it looks like the winter won’t really affect this season.”

The outlook is good as long as there isn’t extra rain.

“No rain in the month of May — that’s our goal,” Howard McAdams laughed.

According to the N.C. State Extension at N.C. State University in Raleigh, North Carolina is the third-largest producer of fresh market strawberries nationwide, coming up behind only California and Florida.

Dr. Gina Fernandez, a strawberry plant breeder at N.C. State, said that the state’s mild fall planting season, perfect amount of winter chilling and warm spring temperatures make it ripe for growing the berries.

“Strawberries don’t like very hot weather,” she said. “In North Carolina, the temperatures warm up enough during spring to harvest the berries before it gets really hot in the summer.”

The state is good for strawberries and strawberries are good for the state, too.

N.C. Growers Association Deputy Director Lee Wicker said that planting an acre of strawberries can cost close to $15,000. But North Carolina’s weather and the long growing season of strawberries across the state can benefit both farmers and farm workers in spite of the steep cost of planting the berries.

“With a good season it’s easy for farmers to make several thousand in profit per acre,” he said. “Plus strawberries work well with other crops like tobacco that have later harvests. Farm workers need extended terms of employment so, if a farm grows strawberries combined with other crops, workers can be employed for strawberry season and later crops.”

Fernandez said that strawberries are resilient in finicky spring weather, another factor that makes the fruit a good match for North Carolina. Still, she recommends picking the berries as quickly as possible during a period of heavy rain.

“Get as many pickers out there as possible when it’s raining a lot — otherwise they’ll sit in the wet fields and that’s when they can crack and rot,” she said.

Ritchie and Beverly Roberts grow strawberries at Double R Cattle Services, Inc., their fourth-generation farm in Hillsborough. In addition to 100% grass-fed beef, they produce a little over an acre of strawberries that they grow for a yearly U-pick operation.

The couple started growing strawberries about ten years after Howard and Karen McAdams, and said that the older couple acted as strawberry-growing mentors for Double R.

This year, the Roberts are celebrating the tenth anniversary of their U-pick fields by selling their beef to visiting berry pickers at a 10% discount. They’re hiring two local kids to help in the patch and their teenage son and daughter will help work the fields as well.

“We hand-weed the rows because people don’t want their berries to be sprayed,” Beverly Roberts said. “I try to make a strawberry treat for our workers once a week during the season, too.”

In 2018, the gloomy weather also affected their berries. Each year, they put a 50% deposit down in June to purchase around 18,000 strawberry plants from Cottle Farms in Faison, N.C. And every year, they hope to break even.

Both farmers were raised in agriculture, and they are used to taking this annual risk for a crop. But that doesn’t mean they don’t get nervous.

“Every day I think about the risk — I might as well be in Las Vegas gambling,” Ritchie Roberts said. “It could end this very afternoon if there’s bad hail or something. But I’m just Scarlett O’Hara, man. Next year’s going to be great.”

And, according to the Roberts, whether or not the season is great, it’s still rewarding to witness.

“Right now, you see a blossom and a little bitty green berry,” Ritchie Roberts said. “I’ve been around growing stuff my whole life but I still get amazed watching strawberries turn red in just a couple of weeks”

With strawberry season, the Roberts said they’re in the business of “selling fun, not fruit.” Each year, they plant in early fall, wait through winter, cross their fingers against bad weather in the spring, and then watch the sun come out.

“We have people that come back year after year,” Beverly Roberts said. “There’s one lady who came for the first time when she was pregnant with her first child. Now that family comes back every year and we’ve watched her kids grow.”