Berry, berry good

Celebrate National Strawberry Month with baskets of delicious strawberries from the farmers’ market

Williamson Farms’ Sheri Williamson sells strawberries at the Saturday Certified Farmers’ Market in downtown Chico.

Williamson Farms’ Sheri Williamson sells strawberries at the Saturday Certified Farmers’ Market in downtown Chico.

Photo By Matt Siracusa

Get yer strawberries!
Fresh strawberries are currently available at local farmers’ markets, including the Chico Certified Farmers’ Market on Saturdays in the parking lot at Second and Wall streets, 7:30 a.m.-1 p.m., and the DCBA-sponsored Thursday Night Market held downtown, 6-9 p.m.

As the spring matures toward summer, the state’s strawberry crop matures into peak season. May, in fact, is designated National Strawberry Month by marketers, and on a walkthrough of local farmers’ markets, it’s plain to see why: Baskets of red, glistening berries cover many of the tables. A month ago, the fruits were still in the fields, and in two more months, many will be gone. In fact, strawberries, though emblematic of sun-soaked fields, do best in mild weather, and the heat of the Central Valley can crush production by July.

But Williamson Farms may have strawberries well into the fall. The farm, managed locally by family member Sheri Williamson, grows strawberries in San Diego, Ventura, and Monterey counties. The southern fields produce strawberries in December and January—a marvelous function of a subtropical climate—while the more northerly, coastal fields start months later, in spring, but remain in production almost through the year.

“At our southern farms, we have trouble when the temperatures get to just 80 or 85 degrees,” says Williamson, who can be found at the Chico Certified Farmers’ Market, held on Saturdays in downtown Chico, selling berries of several varieties. Temperatures don’t often climb so high in Monterey County, and they almost never hold there for days on end—which is perfect for a strawberry.

Many small-farm strawberry growers produce a variety called the Chandler. Terry Givens, manager of the Saturday farmers’ market, says Chico growers have experimented with a number of varieties but have, more often than not, come back again and again to the Chandler. It is sweet, juicy and intensely flavored, she says.

But the Chandler is also notoriously perishable.

“It has just no shelf life,” says Williamson, whose brother—the farm owner—once grew Chandlers but has moved to new varieties. “That was always the big complaint from our customers who said it went bad in a day or two in the fridge. We’d try and ship them up to Chico and they wouldn’t hold up.”

Such sensitivity to the bumpy nature of travel hardly matters to growers who only drive several miles from field to market. But the Chandler’s tendency to bruise and smash precludes it from playing a part in California’s huge strawberry-export industry, which supplies 88 percent of the United States’ strawberries and 20 percent of the world’s. For such long-distance shipping, other varieties must come into play, and the Albion, a large berry built to withstand the rigors of long-distance travel, is a favorite among many growers.

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As Carolyn O’Donnell, communications director with the California Strawberry Commission in Watsonville, puts it, the Albion “hits a sweet spot, literally,” between size, flavor and durability.

But Chad Finn doesn’t think much of the Albion. As a geneticist and berry breeder with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s experimental station in Corvallis, Ore., Finn has tasted more strawberries than most people could ever hope to. He has helped develop 32 varieties and meanwhile oversees maintenance of a government collection of 500-plus varieties—perhaps the largest strawberry collection in the world. Finn approves of the Chandler but believes that many other commercial varieties are less than excellent.

“In California, a lot of people talk about how great the Albion is,” says Finn, who has also worked extensively with blackberries and raspberries. “When they talk about how luscious it is, I think, ‘You guys need to get out more.’”

In Finn’s estimation, the best strawberries grow in Oregon and Washington. He especially likes the Hood and the Rainier strawberries. However, these varieties happen to be soft and perishable ones unfit for anything but the processing industry, which gladly buys bruised or blemished berries so long as they contain good flavor—which Finn says the Northwest varieties do.

“They have intense flavor, high brix [a measurement of sugar content], and high acid,” Finn says. He adds that premium ice-cream brands are the biggest buyers of Oregon’s berries.

Almost the entire Oregon strawberry industry of roughly 3,000 acres is committed to growing berries for processing. But California’s 37,000 acres of strawberry fields, which produced some 2 billion pounds of fruit in 2009, almost exclusively supply the fresh market. With most berries going out of state, the hardy, bruise-resistant Albion has become a leading variety and now makes up about 35 percent of the state’s production.

Finn explains that a strawberry’s aromatic compounds intensify as the fruits ripen and soften.

“But that just doesn’t work in today’s market,” he said. Only those growers who supply markets close to their farms can allow their berries to enter the late stages of ripening. “Those flavors and aromas you get in the riper berries are a good reason to support local farms.”

The best place to taste fresh California strawberries at their best is at a farmers’ market. At Chico’s Saturday market, just one strawberry farmer—Nicosio Soria—is certified organic.

Other growers, Givens says, use synthetic fertilizers but tend to stay away from the infamous poisons that many large-scale farms apply to their fields. Most notorious among these is the soil fumigant methyl bromide, which is being replaced by a cousin pesticide called methyl iodide, which activists have argued is even more dangerous to human health than the chemical it’s replacing. Methyl iodide, however, does not damage the ozone layer—perhaps its greatest virtue. O’Donnell says the California Strawberry Commission is helping fund experiments to find suitable soil sterilizers that don’t compromise the health of the people with which it comes into contact.

Meanwhile, Finn continues his quest to build the perfect berry, and he recognizes that, for pragmatic reasons in a global economy, appearance and durability often take precedence over taste and aroma.

“Strawberries, of all crops I’ve worked with, have been dumbed down the most,” Finn says. “Most people just don’t know what a really good strawberry tastes like.”