Strawberries get extended harvesting season this year

Rene Gelder inspects strawberries at her family farm Monday in Benton Harbor. She reports that strawberries have been a strong performer at Ellis Family Farms this year. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

Rene Gelder inspects strawberries at her family farm Monday in Benton Harbor. She reports that strawberries have been a strong performer at Ellis Family Farms this year. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR — It was an odd sight for Rene Gelder in May.

The Gelders began to see their strawberries start to blossom in April, which meant they would have to start picking by mid-May. However, when May came around, there was another full surge of blossoms. Their field was covered.

“I’m not sure if the weather had an impact on it,” she said. “The berries tend to be small if you have an extra blossom period, but these were nice and large. I was happy. I’m still happy.”

The strawberry season normally lasts four weeks, accounting for most of June. Because Ellis Family Farms got those extra two weeks, there’s been an abundance of strawberries flooding the Southwest Michigan market.

Michigan produced temperatures 10 degrees warmer than the average mark for the last two weeks in May, according to information collected from the National Weather Service’s Benton Harbor station. This warm weather would go on to increase the number of blossoms across the state and produced fruit at an accelerated rate.

This was in stark contrast to previous years where late frost has destroyed many crops in late spring and early summer.

Among the 58 acres on the Ellis Family Farms in Benton Harbor, only 1.5 acres were used solely to grow strawberries.

Brian Smith, manager of the St. Joseph Farmer’s Market, said it’s been a popular time for strawberries at every farmer’s market.

“It’s one of those odd seasons,” he said. “It was a rough spring and now we’ve go this heat. Overall, our farmers are happy with the market. No one is saying they’ve lost a lot of produce. There will be some exceptions, but we haven’t heard any complaints of the flow of the market.”

Rene Gelder eats a few strawberries freshly picked from her family farm Monday in Benton Harbor. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

Rene Gelder eats a few strawberries freshly picked from her family farm Monday in Benton Harbor. (Tony Wittkowski | HP Staff)

Laura Gelder, Rene’s daughter-in-law, said this Saturday will be the final round of local strawberries going to markets.

The family farm not only sells produce at the market, but also sells to several restaurants, such as The Boulevard Inn and Bistro, The Mason Jar Cafe and The Livery.

In that time, Laura said the increase in strawberries has increased in demand as well.

“It was a little scary in May because it seems like it might be too cold,” she said. “April was a little warm. Ideally, what every farmer wants is gradual warmth. Three or four years ago it was in the 80s in March and then frost came in April. It killed a lot of crops.”

The turnaround has been seen in other crops.

The first harvest of blueberries began last week for several farmers. In addition, sweet cherries are making a comeback in Michigan.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released its 2016 Michigan Cherry Production Forecast last week, which forecast Michigan’s sweet cherry crop could hit 21,000 tons – a 32 percent increase from the June 2015 forecast.

Ellis Family Farms has had a good run with asparagus this season. The normally hardy crop has grown in excess in both “Millennium” and “Purple Giant” asparagus for the Gelders.

“I dare say we were at about 700 pounds an acre with asparagus,” Gelder said. “We have about 10 acres dedicated to asparagus.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on June 28, 2016)

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