ACROSS MISSISSIPPI — An early strawberry season delights consumers, but growers must keep an eye on this spring’s fickle weather to protect their delicate and valuable crop.
“The strawberry crop has come into production two weeks earlier than normal,” said Wayne Porter, a Mississippi State University Extension Service agent in Lauderdale County who specializes in horticulture. “All of the rain has caused a lot of additional disease problems. Anthracnose can always be a problem, but with the constant rainfall, it is more prevalent. It puts a spot on the fruit and makes it unusable, because consumers want perfect berries.”
For Mississippi growers, the goal is to harvest one pound of fruit per plant, Porter said. Yields are influenced by temperature fluctuations, as the plants have a low tolerance for extremes. This year’s crop appears to be on target so far, Porter said.
“Weather is always a factor. Three years ago, a grower I work with in Clarke County got about half a pound per plant because of cold weather. Last year, he got a pound and a half, and he was ecstatic. Too many days above 85 degrees, and the strawberries quit producing,” he said.
With fewer than 100 acres statewide, strawberries are considered a specialty crop, but one that is very popular with consumers.
“Growers are scattered around the state, and most sell their strawberries locally through farmers’ markets or produce stands,” Porter said. “I think there is potential for a lot more growers in the state to plant strawberries, because the existing growers can sell their berries quickly and easily.”
Mel Ellis, co-owner of the Mayhew Tomato Farm in Lowndes County, has been growing a steadily increasing number of strawberries since 2004. He originally planted only about half an acre but now has 2 acres in strawberries, despite the labor-intensive practices required to grow the popular fruit.
“We hand-planted 30,000 plants in mid-October,” he said. “Heat and hail are the biggest enemies of the strawberries. It’s gotten hot early this year, and persistent heat can cause the fruit to be misshapen or stop pollinating.
“Strawberries are a mountain plant, but farmers try to grow them everywhere in the world. The strawberry plant can tolerate temperatures down to 8 to 10 degrees, but the flowers and fruit can’t tolerate freezing,” he said.
“In north Mississippi, we’ll start having days in the 50s in February but still have freezing nights,” Ellis said. “If you’ve got flowers out there, you have to cover them with a row material to give them some protection. If I don’t start covering in February, I don’t have fruit by April 1.”
If the temperatures hold in the 55 to 75 degree range, Ellis can pick until mid-May. This year, he started picking berries two weeks early. The typical harvest runs from mid-March until the end of April.
“One of the benefits of Mississippi strawberries is that they’re sweeter than fruit shipped from out of state, because we can wait until the fruit is fully ripe to pick it,” he said. “We hand pick and then hand sort in the shed after an initial field culling. Big operations do a field cull only, so the packages you see in the grocery store may include a bad berry or berries that are uneven in appearance and flavor.”
Ellis has experimented with different varieties over the years and has settled on the Camarosa. He wants a variety that is a good mix of old-fashioned berry qualities — small, sweet and tender — and the qualities of the newer varieties, which produce bigger berries but are less sweet.
Prices for strawberries have held steady compared to last year. Ellis is selling a flat for $20, a half-flat for $12 and a 1-pound clamshell container for $3.