BY JANE BLOODWORTH ROWE
PUNGO — This spring may go down in local lore as one of the best strawberry seasons ever in southern Virginia Beach. There was a bountiful crop thanks to the weather conditions – and there were also plenty of eager customers waiting to buy them.
“I don’t know that there’s a single grower who will complain about this season,” said Virginia Beach Extension Agent Roy Flanagan, who also is a strawberry grower. [Ed. – Flanagan is kin to John Doucette, editor of The Independent News.]
A very mild winter and an extended cool snap in May created the right conditions for a long, productive season, and Flanagan said that it’s perhaps his best season in 20 years of growing berries.
“It’s very rare that we start early and pick late,” Flanagan said.
The National Weather Service reported an average daily high temperature of 65 degrees, or seven degrees above normal in Norfolk during March, and those balmy temperatures coaxed the strawberries into blooming early.
Strawberries normally only produce berries within a narrow temperature range, and they slow down when temperatures reach the high eighties and nineties. This year, the average daily high temperature in May was just shy of 73 degrees, well within the safe range.
Strawberry season in southern Virginia Beach opened on Saturday, March 14, when Bruce Henley, owner of Flip Flop Farmer, opened his New Bridge Road field for pick-your-own.
“That’s the earliest that we’d ever opened,” said Henley, “and we’d already been picking a few for the market for a couple of weeks before then.”
Henley begins the season with Sweet Charlies, an early variety of berries, and his field, which is sheltered from wind by woods on the east, north, and west sides, encourages early production. Still, it wasn’t too long before other growers began opening their fields or harvesting their berries for the market.
“We’re in our tenth week of picking strawberries,” said Jane Cullipher mid-June. “Normally we go five or six weeks on a good year.”
For the past two years, unseasonably hot weather and, at times, heavy rains have shortened the season, “but this year we didn’t have that three days of rain followed by three days of above 80-degree temperatures,” Cullipher said.
Some strawberry varieties, including the Ruby June, also seem to be tougher and to bloom longer. “The Ruby Junes are a blessing,” Cullipher said, adding that, barring a premature heat wave, Cullipher Farm Market expected berries through June.
The timing of the rain is also important, and some years it all seems to fall on weekends, which cuts down on the number of customers who come to pick. This year, many people worked from home or were furloughed because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, so the fields – which implemented a series of safety measures – were also crowded on weekdays.
“We had huge crowds,” Henley said.
He attributes some of that to the cabin fever that people may have experienced earlier this spring when restaurants, theaters and other businesses were closed.
“I think that people just wanted to get out of the house and get some fresh air,” he said, “and people were off work so that they could come out every day.”
The pandemic also seemed to bring an increased interest in local foods. Cullipher Farm Market didn’t open their fields for pick-your-own until Wednesday, June 10, but online sales were brisk earlier this season.
Other spring vegetables, including asparagus and May peas, also produced well and sold well, Flanagan said, although some farmers had trouble getting them established because of cool, rainy weather.
Regarding strawberries, Henley said, “Except for that one week of rain in May, we couldn’t have asked for a better season.”
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