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Pandemic, late chill won’t stop strawberry season

strawberry season
(© Tim UR –

The outlook for Virginia’s strawberry season is strong, though farmers are contending with two formidable threats––spring frost and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The mild winter has pushed berries to be ready several weeks earlier this year, but lows in the 30s are expected to persist for a few days.

“The plant stock Virginia growers received or purchased in the fall was very good, so the plants are healthy, which should produce many beautiful berries,” said Gail Milteer of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Office of Domestic Marketing. “However, it only takes one night of extremely cold weather to diminish a crop. I know the growers north of Richmond, Central Virginia, the Valley and Southwest Virginia are very worried about the next few nights. Growers that use row covers will be applying them to add protection.”

The highly contagious coronavirus also has been a concern. Several strawberry farmers interviewed for a Virginia Farm Bureau Federation magazine article reported that their farm stands and U-pick strawberry fields will remain open, as they are classified as essential businesses under Gov. Ralph Northam’s stay-at-home order that extends to June 10. Those growers said they plan to carefully follow VDACS safety guidelines.

Milteer said pick-your-own farmers have implemented field zoning or picking reservations, and many will sell berries only by the container this year.

“We certainly didn’t see this coming when we planted our strawberries the first of October,” said Virginia Beach farmer Tom Baker. His Brookdale Farm is closed to agritourism activities but still open to pickers. “We’re numbering our rows, and we’ll assign them to get people spaced out across the field.”

Steve Gallmeyer of The Gallmeyer Farms Berry Patch in Henrico County said it’s a scary situation, “not just from a health standpoint, but from a business standpoint.” A small labor force means visiting pickers are essential to farm operations. However, The Berry Patch is prepared to accommodate pickers safely with hand-sanitizing stations and zoning measures.

“We sectioned fields off so we can have visible guidelines, and of course we’ll be giving instructions to customers,” Gallmeyer said.

Bruce Henley, a strawberry grower for Flip Flop Farm in Pungo, said pin flags will block every other row of berry plants to enforce distancing, and he’ll move the flags accordingly throughout the day.

“I have a bucket with bleach solution mixed up, and in between customers we’ll wipe the scale off, and we won’t touch any customers’ buckets,” Henley said. “We’re doing a whole lot of things we never did before.”