Convenient dry stretch could result in long harvest window
By TIM CHRISTIE
EUGENE, Ore. (AP) -- As farmer Jim Evonuk walked through his muddy field of strawberries on Seavey Loop Road last week, stomping through puddles between rows, a steady drizzle falling from a steel-gray sky turned suddenly into a pelting downpour, sending Evonuk to the shelter of his barn.
"We've had enough rain," he said. "If we have another week or 10 days of this, it will cease to be fun."
A cool, wet spring is to blame for a slow-growing crop of Oregon strawberries. Growers say they're hoping for a dry stretch of weather so the fruit ripens and they can begin picking in the next week or two.
For many Oregonians, the sweet, succulent red berries are an iconic fruit and harbinger of summer, eaten in pies, on ice cream, on shortcake and out of hand. A particularly rainy May hasn't yet posed a serious threat to the fruit, but if the wet weather continues, crops could suffer.
"I think it looks like a pretty good crop if we ever get started," said Matt Unger, a member of the Oregon Strawberry Commission who grows the fruit on 50 acres in Cornelius, west of Portland. "The rain's delaying it and making it harder to get out and get things done."
Once they ripen, strawberries need warm dry weather or they rot quickly, said Ross Penhallegon, an OSU Extension agent for Lane County.
"Strawberries look really good," he said. "It's going to be late, but we got good strawberries coming on."
The first crop of strawberries should be ready to pick within the next two weeks, he said. The cool weather should mean an extended harvest, he said.
"They're still blooming," he said. "The question is, have the bees been able to get out long enough between the rain to do pollinating? We'll have to wait to know for sure."
Among small fruits, strawberries trail only blueberries in Lane County in terms of acreage and value. Last year, growers harvested 3.5 tons of strawberries in Lane County, grown on 95 acres, with a sales value of $496,000, according to Oregon State University Extension Service. Strawberries are Oregon's 42nd most valuable agricultural commodity, with gross sales last year of $12.9 million.
Oregon farmers are growing far fewer strawberries than they used to, however. In 1970, they produced 71.5 million pounds. In 2000, the yield was down to 35.3 million pounds. Last year, it was down to 20.1 million pounds.
Unger, the strawberry commissioner, said the market for frozen berries -- where most Oregon strawberries end up -- has declined.
"Prices are doing better on different crops," he said. "We're trying to turn that around."
This year's yield should be similar to last year's, he said.
Last week, most of the berries in Evonuk's strawberry field were still green, with a smattering of ripening red fruit, spattered with mud.
"We wouldn't want this (rain) when we're ready to harvest," Evonuk said.
It's not good for the berries, and customers won't come out to pick if it's rainy, he said.
Jared Henderson is in charge of field operations at Thistledown Farms, his family's farm on River Road. He's also ready for the rains to let up.
"With strawberries, we grow them on the ground and the rain splashes dirt on them. It makes them dirtier than they otherwise might be," he said.
Rain doesn't become a real problem, though, until the berries start to ripen. Wet weather can lead to gray mold and quickly rotting fruit, he said.
Temperatures of 65 to 70 and overcast skies would be just right, he said.
"I don't know of a berry that likes hot weather in spring," he added. "You like moderate temperatures, especially for strawberries."
But an extended harvest is a good thing, he said. Thistledown sells most of its strawberries at its farm stand.
"The more days you have to sell the better off you are because the more money you'll make," he said. "This could be the latest year I've ever seen."
Henderson said he plants various crops about every 10 days in the spring so he has a steady harvest in the summer. But he said the wet weather may create gaps between some crops, such as beans and corn.
"When you have weather like this, it creates a hole," he said. "It's hard to make things come together."
The ground hasn't dried out enough for tomatoes and peppers, but apples and peaches "look real good right now," he said.
The cool weather keeps the tree fruits from getting too big too fast, and they're easier to thin, he said.
Blueberries, meanwhile, which Henderson grows on 10 acres, don't mind the rain, he said.
"Of all the berries, blueberries are the toughest," he said. They have a long shelf life and don't bruise as easily as other berries, he said.
Blueberries are the most grown and highest valued of the small fruits grown in Lane County. The 7,700 pounds of berries harvested on 170 acres last year had a sales value of $1.44 million last year.
The market for blueberries "just keeps getting better and better," Henderson said. "People are planting them right and left."
Marcia Bear and her husband, P.J., grow blueberries on two acres at the Bear Fruit farm on Harrisburg Road.
The berries are still hard and green, and they grow in bushes up off the ground, so the rainy weather does them no harm, she said.
"They're looking good at this point," she said. The rain, she said, "is just good for them as long as we don't get hail."
Public awareness about the potential health benefits of blueberries, which are loaded with antioxidants, has helped spur demand in recent years, she said.
Penhallegon said other crops, such as wine grapes and hazelnuts, appear to be doing fine in the rain, but as with strawberries, harvests are likely to be delayed. And for home gardeners, the cool spring means they might not be eating tomatoes and peppers until August, he said.
"Last year, it was the same thing," he said. "It's looking like a fairly carbon copy of last year."