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Strawberries: harvest short, quality good

A cold winter may have delayed strawberry harvesting, but it did not affect the quality or taste of berries.

Mississippi strawberry harvest usually begins in mid-March, but this year, cold weather pushed harvest back to the second week in April.

“Temperatures were about 10 degrees lower than normal, which pushed planting back a week and in turn, delayed harvesting by a few weeks,” said Wayne Porter, Mississippi State University Extension Service agent in Lauderdale County.

Randy Mathis, a strawberry grower in Clark County, Miss., expected yields to be lower than normal.

“Of course, we can’t say for sure, but it looks like we’ll have a much shorter harvest than in previous years,” he said. “We probably won’t be able to make up lost harvest time on the other end, because of the hot weather we expect to see in the coming weeks.”

Mathis and Porter both said the plants stop producing berries in hot temperatures. “Once it gets hot, the plants will stop ‘berrying’ and we’ll be done for the season,” Mathis said.

The good news is that this year’s harvest already looks promising. Mathis said what has shortened the harvesting time has also enhanced the quality of the berries.

“The berries are beautiful this year. The quality is as good as, or better, than previous years,” Mathis said. “The reason is that the plants did not get a chance to grow as large. Smaller plants allow for more air circulation, which helps prevent fungus and other problems. With bigger plants, the berries sometimes get stuck under the leaves and they don’t get as much air flow.”

Allen Eubanks, owner of Eubanks Produce, grows strawberries in George County, Miss., and is also seeing a good harvest.

“The berries are of excellent quality,” he said. “Our harvest will probably be five to six weeks rather than our normal eight to nine weeks, but we are happy with the berries, and the yields are looking pretty good so far.”

Strawberries are not a major crop for Mississippi, with the only acreage in Clark, George, Green, Lowndes and Wayne counties.

“Growing strawberries is expensive. It can cost $12,000 to $13,000 in materials, labor and chemicals before harvest,” Porter said. “The positive is that there is a good local demand for Mississippi strawberries.”

Mathis and Eubanks both sell their berries locally and benefit from this high demand. Eubanks also sells his berries to retailers in Alabama and Louisiana and to Wal-Mart stores.

Research at Mississippi State University may benefit strawberry growers in the state. Porter said researchers are conducting trials using “high tunnels,” which are unheated greenhouse structures that help regulate temperature.

“The berries stay warmer in the high tunnels, so they can be harvested between December and February,” Porter said. “An earlier harvest means growers can get berries to consumers before the Florida and California strawberries flood the market.”

Eubanks has used high tunnels on some of his land for the past three years.

“We’ve seen mixed results thus far with the tunnels,” he said. “We always look for new ways to improve our crop so they have been worth trying. This past winter was tough, so there really has not been an easy solution.”

Despite the harsh winter, customers will enjoy quality strawberries. “You take the bad with the good,” Mathis said. “We lost time in the fields, but we’ve got a good harvest.”

Eubanks agreed that customers will be happy with this year’s strawberry harvest. “They are good quality and good eating, and we can’t complain about that.”

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