Strawberry picking is one of the many highlights of a summer in Maine and this year, it’s going to happen a little earlier.
Growers around the state say that strawberries are ripening earlier than the usual end of June start to the season. It’s likely a result of a mild May and recent warm weather. That means hopeful strawberry pickers should clear their schedules and get their baskets ready — picking could begin in some places as early as next week.
“We’re seeing we’ve had two months here for fairly warm temperatures and we’re starting to see some color in pretty much all the early varieties,” said Tom Stevenson, owner of Stevenson’s Strawberries in Wayne. “I would say we’re probably a week ahead of an average season. I actually found a couple to eat yesterday. The flavor is very good. I think the crop looks much better than it did last year.”
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Stevenson said that the early strawberry crop has a lot to do with this year’s weather.
“Unlike last year, this May was very nice,” he said. “We didn’t have a ton of frost [and] we never got the extreme cold we got last year.”
The recent spate of hot weather has certainly helped as well. Luke Sites, owner and manager of Sites Farm in Athens, expects to open strawberries for pickers as early as “Monday or Tuesday next week.”
“Usually we start picking around the 19th or 20th [of June],” Sites said.
Per usual, strawberry farms further north will start a little later.
“We’re a few weeks behind the southern part of the state,” said Frank McElwain, owner of McElwain Strawberry Farm in Caribou. “Usually we have strawberries somewhere around the first week of July. This year it looks like it’s going to be the last week [of June] or maybe a little bit earlier. It’s one of the earlier seasons we’ve had.”
The warm weather has not only made for an earlier strawberry crop, but a better one as well.
“I think we’re going to have a better year than we’ve had,” McElwain said. “The last couple of years, we’ve been hurt by winter injury, where we’ve had some damage from freezing rain. [This year] they came out of the winter much better than they have been and are progressing nicely. It should be a very nice crop.”
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McElwain said that the common strawberry pest pressures have not been exacerbated by the warmer weather, either.
“They’re pretty much an annual thing and they’re happening a week or so early,” McElwain said. “If we were to get an extended period of wet weather that would cause some fungal diseases that might be problematic.”
Strawberry season normally lasts about three weeks — four, if growers and pickers are lucky — and McElwain said that it doesn’t vary much no matter when the crop starts ripening.
But it’s not all good news. The early season may cause problems for some growers who rely on the fourth of July weekend for visitors.
“Typically our biggest weekend is the third and fourth of July,” Stevenson said. “We’ll probably be at the end of our second week or beginning of our third week when that weekend rolls around. I think we’ll still have some by then, [but] it is a little nerve-wracking.”
Sites, though, is “not worried at all” about the way it will impact his business.
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“Actually I kind of think it might be better because we might be done for the season before some really hot weather comes in,” he said. “It’s kind of nice having it early. It’s hard to get everything ready, but once we get going, I don’t see any issues with it.”
Demand for experiences like picking strawberries is expected to be high this year as well.
“Coming off of last year was an above average demand,” Stevenson said. “I think people were just so excited to get out of their houses after being locked up. I think the demand will be good again. It’s not quite back to normal yet so people will be excited to get out of the house and do something fun and fairly cheap.”
If you want to pick strawberries, Stevenson said that the first two weeks of the season are usually the best in terms of the quality of fruit. However, if you want to avoid crowds, later may be better.
“I always tell my people that the first week we’re open is really busy,” Sites said. “If you want berries, you have to come as soon as wel open because we usually pick out within two hours the first week we’re open. After that, it gets easier.”
Make sure you call ahead or check a farm’s Facebook page before you go, though.
“Definitely call before you head out because if we pick out, we might not be picking that day,” Sites said. “You can check Facebook too. Sometimes our phone system is overwhelmed, even with [our] two answering services.”
Still, growers are excited and ready for the season.
“The crop looks better than normal and it’s early. We’re expecting a big year,” Sites said. “We’ve been busy as heck but we’ll be ready.”