What's in store

Cathy Jett is the business editor at The Free Lance-Star, and specializes in covering the area's retail scene. You can email her at

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Strawberries will be worth the wait

The start of this year’s strawberry season has been the hardest to predict in the 25 years that the owners of a Caroline County farm have been raising them.

“It’s been very frustrating,” said Mary West, co-owner Mount Olympus Berry Farm in Ruther Glen. “We had a cold winter and a cold spring. It’s one of those sit-and-waits. I think it will go from zero to flat-out in no time.”

Like her, growers across the state say that the weather has delayed their crops by one to three weeks, but they are anticipating a strong season, said Sarah Pennington, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

“One thing we have heard from farmers is that even though the season has been delayed, these strawberries will be worth the wait,” she said. “Cooler conditions can boost the size of the fruit as well as the sugar level, so it’s looking like some will be extra sweet and juicy.”

Strawberries are the fifth-most-preferred fresh fruit in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. VDACS anticipates the peak of this year’s season will arrive in early May for southeastern Virginia, where temperatures are milder; and mid- to late-May in other parts of the state, where the weather is cooler.

Pennington added that the peak will also vary depending on how farmers protected their crops.

West said that Mount Olympus, which uses row covers in the winter, generally starts picking strawberries in late April and early May. So far, just a few handfuls have been ripe for picking.

“I’ve been trying to keep the phone message updated and our Facebook page [about when the berries will be ready],” she said. “They’re probably the best, almost immediate, sources to go to.”

Strawberries started ripening a littler earlier than usual at Westmoreland Berry Farm in Oak Grove this year, and it just started picking strawberries this week.

“I thought it would be two to three weeks late, but we had enough warm weather to be a week early,” he said.

Still, Westmoreland Berry has them for sale only in its farm store. The fields aren’t open for people to pick their own just yet, Lloyd said.

Both he and West said that they think this year’s crop of strawberries should be outstanding.

“It looks like a pretty good crop,” said West. “I just confirmed with my husband that they’re larger and sweeter. The taste for an early-season berry is outstanding. I don’t know if that’s the rainbow for dealing with the cold weather.”

Lloyd said that he was surprised at how big Westmoreland Berry’s earliest-ripening strawberries are this year. He plants three or four varieties to help stretch out the season.

“To sweeten them up, we need some good, warm sunshine. I know it’s going to get better when we have a couple of 80-degree days. That really changes the flavor of the strawberries,” he said.

In two weeks, Lloyd predicted, “we should be up to our elbows in strawberries.”

Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407