Nothing feels more like spring than picking fresh North Carolina strawberries straight from the field.
Call it a rite of passage or the pinnacle of spring, but for many Tar Heel residents strawberry pickin’ is an annual ritual.
And with the season starting earlier than normal this year, mouth-watering strawberries will be abundant.
Strawberry season was significant as a kid growing up in the Piedmont. The plump, luscious red fruit not only coincided with my May birthday, but also brought us out of the suburbs and onto the farm. Even as a teenager, my affinity for strawberries drove me to seek out farms in contiguous counties. My mother, driving our family’s big blue 1963 Cadillac, maneuvered through the back roads in search of the next “pick-your-own-farm.” And, in most years, we ended up in Stokes County where the matted rows of hilled strawberry plants were primed for harvest.
In those days, muddy fields from spring rains were expected. Bringing an extra pair of shoes for changing became customary during a strawberry pickin’ adventure on Carolina clay soil. Those farms were not as pristine as many of the ones across our state today. There was no black plastic to keep the berries clean. Weeds were common after flooding torrents of rain. And avoiding moldy fruit was necessary in the low-lying rows.
Yet, we were rarely disappointed with our foray to a berry farm. Our biggest challenge was knowing when to stop picking. As a kid, it was easy to get carried away. Many times we toted home more strawberries than we could eat or preserve in the freezer. Dad would roll his eyes at our overflowing buckets lining the kitchen counter. Without saying a word, we knew what he was thinking: “You kids have a lot of work ahead of you.”
Today on the farm, the oversized Canadian varieties are planted on giant, mounded rows. They are neatly overlaid with plastic and make the strawberry harvest less of a sport and more of an extension of the produce counter.
But many things have changed for the better since I was a kid. There are plastic gathering pails, row markers, and field supervisors that make the berry picking experience more accessible and customer-friendly. The biggest changes since the berry pickin’ days of my childhood, in my opinion, are the Port-a-Johns and cash registers. These modern conveniences have changed the whole dynamic of “pick-your-own-farms,” and for the better.
The success and recent growth of the strawberry industry across the state has resulted in a surge of “pick-your-own farm” enterprises. Many of these farms also offer additional seasonal crops, such as blackberries, sweet corn, pumpkins, collards, asparagus, and sweet potatoes. Farms that serve customers directly from the field are a lucrative business near urban centers with high traffic roads; especially where growers cater to the “buy local” and organic vegetable clientele.
My love for strawberries hasn’t changed much in 45 years. As long as it isn’t raining, you will probably find me in a strawberry field throughout May and June; I’ll drop by a couple of roadside stands and farmers markets to pick up some more farm-fresh berries, too. There’s no doubt, I love calling North Carolina home, especially during strawberry season.