Call it lucky 13. Bill Landreth’s thirteenth strawberry crop is his biggest and best crop ever. It’s also the earliest the Newport, Ark., berry grower can remember picking and packaging “Bill’s Best” strawberries.

“We started picking April 2,” Landreth said on April 11. “Normally, we pick around April 20 or 25. It caught everybody off guard.”

“Everybody” includes his customers.

“We’d been picking a week when people started asking ‘when will the strawberries be ready?’

“And it’s not just me. It’s everybody who grows strawberries,” Landreth said, reciting a litany of Arkansas growers he knows who are also sharing this early bounty, prompted by a record warm winter.

Selling the berries this early has its challenges. Farmers markets that rely on berry vendors to drive early season sales won’t open for several weeks. Landreth and other growers are eager to get out the news that the berries are ready.

“Once the word gets out, then the party’s on.”  

A story about Landreth’s crop aired on KAIT-TV in Jonesboro and the following morning he sold 1,200 pounds of berries from his on-farm stand. “You should’ve seen the parking lot this morning!”

Landreth said he sells at the Arkansas State University farmers market, which won’t open until May 5. “We may not have berries by the time that gets here.”

“This year’s strawberry crop is approximately three weeks early and is one the largest ever,” said Jim Goodson, president of the MidAmerica Strawberry Growers Association.

Goodson said there are approximately 75 acres of strawberries all across Arkansas from near Memphis, Tenn., to Fort Smith and Fayetteville to Hope. The largest number of growers are located along US 67-167 from Little Rock to Jonesboro.

Statewide, “growers produce approximately 150,000 pounds of strawberries annually,” Goodson said.  A majority of the fruit is sold on the farm.

“The primary means of selling strawberries at this time in Arkansas is direct to the consumer,” said Goodson. “Very little, if any, berries go for processing.”

Ron Rainey, Extension economist for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, helps connect growers to consumers through various retail outlets and restaurants through the Arkansas MarketMaker program. Part of the work he does with growers is helping them prepare to meet new federal standards that would allow them to sell to groceries and other chain retail.

“The timing this season really points out the importance of linking consumers to their food and understanding how things work at the farm end,” said Terra Daniels, Extension program associate with the MarketMaker program.

Rainey warned that the clock was ticking on berry availability this spring. “If you wait until mid-May for fresh strawberries you may miss out. You will support a local business and your taste buds will thank you.”

If there is one worry for most strawberry growers, it’s the weather.

Randy Chlapecka, Jackson County Extension staff chair, said this year “is potentially an outstanding crop if the weather cooperates, but as a one producer always says, ‘They're not all picked yet.’”

“We could get a hail storm tonight and wipe it all out,” Landreth said. “Looks like you mowed them off with a dull lawnmower.”

The next chance for severe weather is the week of April 16, the National Weather Service said.

For more information about nutrition and handling strawberries once they’re home, see the Arkansas Fresh fact sheet about strawberries here.

 

To learn more about growing strawberries at home, see FSA6103, “Strawberry Production in the Home Garden,” here.

Also see Gerald Klingaman’s “Plant of the Week” column on strawberries here.