Spring is strawberry time in South Texas and an area known as the Coastal Prairie Artesian region is where some of the sweetest strawberries in the state are grown, especially in and around Poteet, Texas, just south of San Antonio.
As the third weekend in April approaches, crowds of 100,000-plus are making plans to swarm the small community to participate in the annual Poteet Strawberry Festival, the premier strawberry event in Texas. The festival is in its 65th year.
While the region is rich in vegetable farming and cattle production, the Blackland prairie soils of the area are particularly suited for berries and supported by artesian water from ground wells.
“I don’t keep up with production numbers from our area though I am sure there are folks out there that probably do,” says Cora Lamar, who grows award winning strawberries and several vegetable varieties including her ‘famous tomatoes’ on her Oak Hills Farm. “But what I do know is that people from all across the state will crowd the festival grounds and buy up just about every strawberry we grow around here.”
Lamar has become a familiar face in Texas this year as a featured grower in the H-E-B Food Stores television commercials airing across the state.
Like Lamar, most strawberry producers in and around Poteet are family operated, what some have called the perfect example of farm-to-market operations.
“For the most part we choose to grow strawberry varieties that don’t offer a long shelf life. We pick our berries when they are vine ripe everyday during the season and sell them within 24 to 48 hours at local outlets or right here on the farm,” explained Linda Wheeler, who, along with her husband Ronnie, grows strawberries on their Wheeler Farm.
The Wheelers also contract with a large, Texas-based grocer to provide strawberries for the limited production of “Poteet Strawberry Ice Cream,” offered at H-E-B retail outlets during the summer months.
“With the [strawberry] festival approaching, we are anticipating a good crop year overall, though last year’s drought did take its toll. We lost a lot of plants, but this year the warm winter and some good rains helped us get the crop in the ground early and we are yielding well so far,” Wheeler adds.
But she warns that even in bumper years of harvest, “the festival weekend runs us dry.”
In fact, demand during festival week is so high that strawberry growers from outside the region flock to Poteet each April to sell their berries from roadside stands.
“Growers in Poteet have struggled with that. We don’t want folks buying strawberries they think are Poteet strawberries when they really aren’t,” Lamar says.
In an effort to curtail the problem, festival organizers limit strawberries inside the festival grounds to only those that are grown locally and require local growers to sell and display their berries in clearly labeled flats and containers.
“You wouldn’t want to go to the Stonewall [Texas] Peach Jamboree and buy a Georgia peach,” remarked one festival organizer who preferred not to be identified “because of that very biased position.”
“They grow good peaches in Georgia, just like there are other good strawberries grown across Texas. But if they aren’t Poteet strawberries, then I would argue they aren’t the best tasting strawberries in Texas,” says the anonymous grower, who admits they are also a partner in a Stonewall peach farm.
“Every community has something they are proud of,” Lamar says. “In and around Poteet we grow some outstanding vegetables and strawberries and we are very proud of our products. Strawberries are labor intensive and you either have the touch or you don’t. If you’ve ever tasted a real Poteet strawberry, then you know what I’m talking about.”
The 2012 Poteet Strawberry Festival runs April 13-15. Visit the festival web site for more information.