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Some local strawberry farms have stopped growing strawberries. Why?

Around this time of year, Whitted Bowers Farm, an organic and biodynamic farm in Cedar Grove, usually would have rows of strawberries planted, with their varieties written out on signs. There would be baskets at their small shop, ready for people to pick into.

But like some farms in the area, Whitted Bowers has stopped growing strawberries. Three years ago was when they stopped their staple.

Why?

The weather has been too wet and too bruising – literally, for tender strawberries.

“A lot of things have to go right over the course of a season to get a strawberry crop,” said Rob Whitted, who co-owns the farm with his wife, Cheri Bowers. “If you’re lucky enough to get fruit sometime in mid- to late-April, then you’re hoping it doesn’t rain for a month. If you get one of those three inches of rain periods, they’re basically gone.”

According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, which is headquartered in Asheville, North Carolina experienced its wettest five-year period from 2014 to 2018, with an average of 55.1 inches of precipitation per year.

North Carolina’s driest five-year period was 1930–1934, with an average annual precipitation of 44.4 inches. The lowest amount of annual precipitation in the state was 34.74 inches in 2007. The highest was 68.4 inches in 2018.

Strawberries are planted in the fall and bloom in early spring, which means they are vulnerable to frost and freeze.

“In general, the whole Piedmont is a late frost area which means you can get a frost later in the season when things are blooming,” Whitted said. “But then sometimes you get 20 degrees, and that’s not a frost, that’s a freeze.”

According to the National Weather Service, although the month began in the 20s on March 1, with temperatures falling to 24 degrees in Raleigh, temperatures then soared to the 80s, with a high of 88 degrees in Raleigh on March 29. The warmest periods were March 19-21 and the last week of the month, the National Weather Service stated in its monthly report.

“We’ve lost an entire blueberry crop due to really hard freeze once they’re in bloom. It’s confusing to us, but if it’s warm in March, things start budding out. They think it’s warm. Then they get smacked with some hard freeze,” Whitted said.

The farm has diversified with blueberries, muscadines, and fruit trees like pear trees and peaches. The weather has also hurt the farm’s biodynamic focus, which is about ensuring the health of the soil. Too much rain washes away the top soil and the nutrients for the plants.

Cates Corner Farm in Hillsborough is still growing strawberries, but stopped doing pick-your-own two years ago. Now, the farm only sells them at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market.

When reached for comment in early April in the midst of the coronavirus response, owners Jon and Aubrey Ray said in an e-mail they were busy trying to meet the demand for food.

Dave Walker, owner of Walker Farm in Hillsborough, was more blunt.

“We had rain at all the wrong times,” he said.

“You have to work the soil,” he added. “If it’s too wet, you can’t work it.”

Walker Farm stopped growing strawberries six years ago.

“[The rain] bruised the berries,” he said. “I’m about semi-retired anyway, so I don’t have to do strawberries.”

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