- Associated Press - Thursday, May 15, 2014

LEXINGTON, N.C. (AP) - Strawberry shortcake, strawberry pie, strawberry ice cream: If these sound appealing to you, then this is the time of year you have been waiting for.

Strawberry season is in full swing across much of North Carolina, but due to the extended cool weather it started later than usual. Many growers said the late start has not affected their business, and they have escaped unscathed from the late frost.

Thomas Penninger, owner of High Rock Nursery, said he didn’t see any lasting effects from the winter on his strawberry crop.

“We started about two weeks later than average, but we didn’t have a whole lot of issues with the cold weather up until about four weeks ago,” Penninger said. “We had those three nights of frost and one night of 27 degrees. It didn’t hurt the strawberries because we had them covered. They were already blooming and set. We had to cover them to protect the plants because 27 degrees would have been very damaging to the fruit and the blooms. You can walk through the fields and see that we didn’t have any damage; even the cold part of winter really didn’t show any damage.”

Donna Nichols, co-owner of Meadow Brook Farm with her husband, Nicky, said they actually planted their strawberries at the normal time of the year despite the extended cold weather, but because of that there were a few worrisome moments.

“My husband babies the berries,” Nichols said. “He would go cover them up and then take it off the next day. There were many anxious nights, nights where we checked the temperature every hour. That late frost was difficult because the next morning he thought the frost had killed some, but we came through it OK. Our crop this year is still very good, if not a little bit more than last year.”

The N.C. Strawberry Association, which represents about 400 growers in the state and a nearly $21 million industry, is hoping people will get out to you-pick operations to stock up on the fruit this year. Dr. Barclay Poling, executive director of the N.C. Strawberry Association, said this season is going to be short but sweet.

“It’s anyone’s guess on how long the season will last,” Poling said. “We’re seeing unprecedented volume during the first week. It is a phenomenon we haven’t seen before.”

Both Nichols and Penninger report they have been selling between 60 to 80 buckets of strawberries a day. They estimate the season should last another two to three weeks.

“We’ve been pleased so far,” Penninger said. “If we can pick through the first of June, that would be good. That’s about average.”

Reports from consumers who have had some of the first berries of the season are they are especially good this year, sweeter and tastier. The downfall about the juicy berries is that they are highly perishable, and experts recommend people freeze or process them as quickly as possible.

For many produce farmers, strawberries herald the beginning of the summer growing season. Meadow Brook Farm has roadside stands in Tyro and Lexington. Nichols said when the strawberries began to ripen, people start to move into that summer state of mind.

“I think when the strawberries start coming in, people get excited,” Nichols said. “They start to think of farmers’ markets, outdoor festivals and yard sales. They also start looking forward to having strawberry bread.”

Penninger admits it was a long, cold winter, but other than a few tense moments in early April, everything seems to be on schedule.

“Everyone talks about how cold the winter was,” Penninger said. “Other than being a couple weeks later that usual, the crop is fine. Once strawberries come in business definitely starts picking up. Strawberries are a popular crop, but it’s just the start of the season for us.”

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