By Ellen Frankman
“This last rain was just a bit too much,” said Bette Lacina, who farms a small plot of land in Sag Harbor with her partner Dale Haubrich called Under the Willow. “I think it’s starting to do the crop in.”
Last Thursday’s storm dumped over an inch of rain across the East End of Long Island, putting the month of June on track to become the wettest on record. According to the National Weather Service, a total of more than eight inches of precipitation have already been recorded, and that number is quickly approaching the June 2003 record of 10.8 inches.
The South Fork’s strawberry crops, which peak in June and thrive in full sun, are paying the price for the wet weather.
“The strawberries were really good the first few pickings we had,” said Lacina. “But I don’t know how good they will be after this last rain.”
“Strawberries can be difficult to grow to begin with, especially organically,” said Ian Calder-Piedmonte of Balsam Farms. “And it’s been a very humid year in general.”
Ideal growing conditions for strawberries are generally sunny skies, with temperatures around 70 degrees and about an inch of rain a week. According to Calder-Piedmonte, the cool spring the East End has had is not what’s to blame for this season’s difficult strawberry crop.
“The cold doesn’t really bother them, but the weather has been all over the place this year with a lot of extremes, really hot and then really cold,” said Calder-Piedmonte who farms several fields spread between Amagansett and Sagaponack. “The worst problem is no doubt the rain.”
Though not Certified Organic, Balsam Farms grows the majority of its produce using organic methods. No fungicide or herbicide is used to ward off the nasty effects of persistent rain.
“A wet strawberry is a lot more susceptible to problems like mold,” said Calder-Piedmonte, who explained that timing and sorting have become imperatives in this particularly wet season.
“Long Island berries can be tart to begin with, and the point at which you harvest is very important,” said Calder-Piedmonte. “If you wait until they are at their best taste, sometimes you lose some of them to rot.”
“Last year was hot, so the crop came in early,” said Calder-Piedmonte. “Picking and sorting has been more important this year for sure.”
Hank Kraszewski of Hank’s Farmstand has been growing strawberries in Southampton for 29 years. Though he’s not disappointed with the quality of this season’s crop, the poor weather has kept customers from coming to pick their own berries on the four acres of strawberry fields he cultivates annually.
“The strawberries are gorgeous,” said Kraszewski. “For us, the problem is that we haven’t been very busy yet. Last weekend we did okay when the sun was out, but when it’s cloudy not as many folks come to pick.”
Kraszewski says that he partially owes the high quality of this year’s crop to new varieties of strawberry plants that have managed to do well. Kraszewski also controls rot and other problems with recommendations from the Cornell Cooperative Extension who inspect the crop.
“A lot of times there are issues of blight with this much rain,” said Kraszewski. “But we do use a fungicide and it hasn’t been a problem. And we’ve still cut down on a lot of what we use on the plants.”
As all farmers must sometimes do, the South Fork’s strawberry farmers are finding ways to keep the crop above water. Balsam Farms is churning out strawberry jam, particularly as the shelf life of the berries diminishes with the increased rainfall.
And Balsam farmer Ian Calder-Piedmonte thinks things could be worse.
“Considering how much rain we’ve gotten, we’ve had an okay crop,” he said. “The strawberries can become a little watery in taste with all the rain, but our berries are still tasting really good. It’s not all bad.”
Kraszewski agrees that despite the weather the strawberry plants themselves are flourishing.
“It’s really amazing how many berries one plant can produce,” he said. “The plants are big and lush and they are just laden with berries. And they’ve been really sweet.”