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In this episode Lowell and I give a brief overview of how the Pick-Your-Own strawberry season has gone here in South Central Virginia. Then we dive into the main topic of the episode, strawberry varieties. Lowell gave an overview of several varieties that we grow here at our farm as well as a number that he has tried over the year, and a few that are possible candidates for future tests here in Rustburg.
Full Episode Transcript
Intro: – 00:00 – ::Music::
Eldon: – 00:10 – Hello everyone, Eldon Yoder here with Conversations with Yoders’ Farm. Lowell and I are going to do a quick podcast episode today recapping where we are in the strawberry season. How things have gone and the end game for our spring season. And then I think we are going to talk a little bit about strawberry varieties. So Lowell, how has the season gone thus far this year?
Lowell: – 00:35 – I think its been a good season. You have several levels, poor, fair, good, very good and excellent. I’d say we are in the good part right now and I guess there is always potential to move it along to very good. I don’t know that we’ll hit excellent this season, but its over all been a good year.
Eldon: – 01:05 – Yeah, and probably on the poorer end of the scale would be some years like we’ve had the past couple of years where it has rained a fair bit, we’ve had a lot of issues with disease and stuff like that. But this year has been fairly dry which has been fairly nice. We’ve had a couple of weekends where it has rained when we would have liked if it hadn’t, but thats kind of the cards we were dealt this year and like you say its been a pretty good year so far.
Lowell: – 01:38 – Yeah, I think when we were recording last time there was rain drumming on the roof as I remember. That was really the last big rain we’ve had. We had a shower or so in between but not to much, its actually kind of dusty.
Eldon: – 01:53 – Yeah, it is a bit dusty sure enough.
Lowell: – 01:55 – But I’m not going to complain because that actually works out. Yeah its a little uncomfortable for us and it blows dust around where we wish it wouldn’t but actually its good strawberry growing weather. You can irrigate a lot easier than you can uh…
Eldon: – 02:14 – Unirrigate?
Lowell: – 02:15 – Yeah I guess. Pump out your rows.
Eldon: – 02:17 – There has been a fair amount of that the times that it has rained this year.
Lowell: – 02:22 – Anyway, yeah. We probably wish that it wouldn’t be quite so hot right now. Its about 107 degrees, at least it feels that way.
Eldon: – 02:32 – I think its only about 90 couple?
Lowell: – 02:36 – Maybe so… its been a very warm couple of days and it looks like its going to be warm for the next at least week or ten days.
Eldon: – 02:45 – Which can really push berries ripening can’t it?
Lowell: – 02:48 – Yeah, it sort of can start shutting things down too. I mean, we are in the end game, we are in the final couple of weeks of the pick your own patch. So…
Eldon: – 03:02 – This weekend is Memorial Day weekend I guess. Memorial day is on Monday, we generally have a fair number of people out here over Memorial Day and this year it happens to be towards the “slowing down” part of our season.
Lowell: – 03:26 – Yeah, we talked about with these strawberries there is kind of a build up, there is kind of a peak and then it tapers towards the end and we are somewhere on that taper towards the end. I was actually surprised the last couple days picking has been pretty good for this time of the year. Its the time of the year for the patient picker. You’re not going to just run out there and see berries hanging down off the edges of the rows and grab big plump berries and fill your bucket in five minutes, but a patient picker like we’ve talked about before, they’ll move the leaves, look up under the plants and if you’re patient and just stick at it you’ll fill your bucket up and get a lot of berries that the other people have missed.
Eldon: – 04:13 – Yeah, we are definitely still seeing a lot of really nice berries coming out of the patch and…
Lowell: – 04:19 – But you can usually tell the difference when someone is coming up to the stand if it is an experienced strawberry picker. You’ll see the quality of the fruit and its obvious that “yeah, you’ve picked before.”
Eldon: – 04:32 – Very good, well thats a recap of where we are in the season. We probably have a week and a half or two weeks yet?
Lowell: 04:39 – Probably something like that. Actually I’m kind of curious to see what this 90 plus degree heat is going to the patch. One thing it really does is slow the pick your own traffic down in the afternoon. Which I don’t blame people… its crazy hot…
Eldon: 04:54 – Mornings tend to be kind of busy?
Lowell: 04:57 – Yeah, this morning was kind of busy and then about lunch time everyone cleared out. Which I would do the same thing!
Eldon: 05:06 – Very good, why don’t we go ahead and talk a little bit about varieties. Maybe give us a run down of some of the “quantity of varieties…” I’m saying all kinds of things wrong.
Lowell: 05:22 – Its ok, you’re running low on sleep so…
Eldon: 05:24 – Lets talk about the ones we grow… and then maybe if there are some are interesting to you we can talk about those too.
Lowell: 05:30 – Ok. So, yeah varieties. This year we, I believe we only have 4 varieties, at least of any consequence in our fields. I’m really a variety “geek” I guess. This is the part of strawberry farming that I enjoy. I love tinkering with new varieties, I like reading the catalogs and the blogs and the papers about new varieties and so forth. All that to say, its probably my weekness. In years past I’ve tried probably too many we’ve had 7, 8, 9 varieties… so forth, but you know…
Eldon: 06:21 – Thats sort of how we have to figure out what works for us, because we are in a little bit of a different place. A lot of strawberry farmers are in Florida or California and its just a different climate.
Lowell: 06:34 – Yeah and even just looking at VA, we aren’t down east. In VA Beach it is a warmer climate, they can grow some things that we can’t here. Or varieties do better down there than they do here. We are kind of in a transition area. Of course we aren’t in the cold mountains either. So we need to find what works here. All right, so we’ve rambled about varieties.
Eldon: 07:00 – Yeah, so what do we actually grow?
Lowell: 07:01 – So, in our pick your own patch we grow primarily Chandlers, its an old tried and true pick your own variety. It is very popular from North Carolina on up, probably into Pennsylvania, I don’t know if it goes much farther north than that. Its an older variety, I think it came out in the 80s. I think it is a California variety but I’m not 100% sure. Anyway, its kind of the gold standard pick your own strawberry. People have been looking for a replacement for Chandler, because, while it tastes great, it yields pretty well, its a forgiving variety, it does have a few issues. One, it doesn’t hold up the best in the rain. I would say its not the worst in the rain, but it probably could do better. The plants tend to get, at least here in our part of the world, a little bigger than would be ideal.
Eldon: 08:15 – They leaf out a lot more it seems like?
Lowell: 08:17 – Yeah, you’re dealing with a large plant, and especially in wet years that can trap a lot of moisture down under the leaves. You can deal with then fruit problems down under all that moisture. The other problem with Chandler, it has a very sharp peak, we talked about how strawberry production peaks…
Eldon: 08:39 – Its not really a long steady season necessarily.
Lowell: 08:42 – Yeah, it tends to peak and if you have a field full of Chandlers and its really warm sometimes you can struggle to keep up.
Eldon: 08:52 – Yup, we have done that before.
Lowell: 08:55 – Yeah, its a great variety, flavor is outstanding, people love it, but there are some issues with it. So, people have been trying to find a replacement for it for some time. So that is one variety that we grow in the pick your own patch, that is almost all that we grow. This year we did put another variety up in the pick your own patch, its a variety that we have really come to like, its called Albion, its a California variety. It is a day neutral, meaning that its not a “June bearing” variety.
Eldon: 09:29 – Neither one of those terms mean much to me.
Lowell: 09:34 – Ok, so its more along the lines of an “ever bearing” variety. In other words it will produce fruit over an extended period of time. A “June bearing” variety produces fruit in, not June, but around here in May. In a shorter window.
Eldon: 09:52 – Would Chandler be a “June bearing” variety?
Lowell: 09:57 – Yeah, its got a defined floral period and then it fruits through those flowers and then its done. Where as the “day neutral” varieties produce flowers in waves, but somewhat steady, if the weather stays moderate an Albion can produce…
Eldon: 10:18 – There are still some Albions with flowers on them out there now.
Lowell: 10:22 – Yeah, we’ve picked Albions into July. In a cooler place like up North farther or over in the mountains you could pick Albions probably quite a while into the summer. So, anyway that is called a “day neutral” variety. We like Albions. Flavor is extremely good, especially later into the season. The berry size is very nice, its usually large…
Eldon: 10:52 – They are what twice the size of a Chandler?
Lowell: 10:56 – They can be, especially early in the season they tend to get big and then they get a little smaller just like everything else. Though, another interesting thing, the plant is smaller and a lot more open so they are easier to pick.
Eldon: 11:11 – It seems like theres not as many stems on them. You can look at the pick your own patch and its very obvious where the Albion rows end and the Chandler rows start.
Lowell: 11:23 – Yeah, thats just the nature of the plant, its a more open plant, its easier to pick and thats one of the disadvantages of Chandler and one of the advantages most times of Albions. It doesn’t protect as well maybe from sun scald on the berries, so forth. So, what are the weaknesses of Albion? It doesn’t hold up well in rain. We said that Chandlers don’t, well Albion is worse. Those big berries it doesn’t take much water, everywhere the berry touches the plastic you’ll get rain damage. So we increased the number of Albions we grow this year, but we knew that it was a little bit of a risk. Sure enough, we had a couple of rain episodes and we threw a lot of fruit away. We had to clean them up, thats just the nature of Albions.
Eldon: 12:14 – I guess one good thing about the “day neutral” part of Albions is that they can go on and produce more and make up for it I guess?
Lowell: 12:20 – Right, we do plan to pick them for a while yet. Thats one of the reasons we went through the effort of cleaning off the bad fruit so that it wouldn’t hurt the fruit that is to come. Probably they don’t yield on the level of Chandler. Probably if you picked one from April through July you could get the same yield, or even later than that. I’ve had people come in and they see the great big Albion berries and they say “why don’t you put that throughout all of your pick your own patch?” Well, it just wouldn’t work. We wouldn’t get the production, if we had a lot of rain it would just be a disaster. On our peak busy days we couldn’t keep up with demand either. We already have problems keeping up even with growing all of the Chandlers that we do. Anyway there are pros and cons to different varieties. So we’ve talked about two of them. Another variety that we are trialing this year is called “Ruby June” we grew it two years ago I believe and the plants came from the nursery fairly weak and small so we didn’t get a very good yield at all that year. I didn’t feel like I gave it a good test. So, we grew it again this year. This is billed to be the Chandler replacement, I’m not convinced. Pros, its a great tasting berry. The taste is slightly different than Chandler, but its right up there. I like to have a berry that I am proud to sell and am not worried about someone saying “thats kind of whatever.” We want to be defined by growing good fruit, so definitely Ruby June is a variety that I don’t mind selling.
Eldon: 14:32 – Just a little side note, the flavor this year we are pretty sure is almost better than any other year we’ve grown strawberries?
Lowell: 14:40 – Its excellent, and that is across all varieties.
Eldon: 14:43 – Yeah, its just fascinating how from year to year even the same variety can taste different. The environment the way the season is going plays a big part into that. Anyway, excuse my side note.
Lowell: 14:55 – So, Ruby June is a great tasting berry, but its not going to yield with Chandler. I’m not sure if its going to yield with Albion.
Eldon: 15:10 – When we are talking about yield is there kind of an average guesstimate of like a lb per plant?
Lowell: 15:14 – Yeah, that is a number that you hear thrown out. Thats about what most people in our part of the world are shooting for. Some places, warmer climates, different varieties, two and three pounds per plant is not unheard of. I don’t know if in a pick your own patch you would ever get that kind of yield. If you have trained pickers picking you’ll probably get a higher yield than if you’re dealing with pickers who aren’t trained. Ruby June is an interesting variety I would like to grow more of it, ours actually came from the nursery with some disease problems this year. If they can get that figured out and cleaned up I would definitely be interested in growing more of them. One thing that I didn’t like is that it had a really big plant again, just as big as Chandler, maybe bigger.
Eldon: 16:15 – This year it was more of a trial with the Ruby Junes right? Like we planted a couple of rows?
Lowell: 16:20 – Yeah, we planted several thousand of them. That is another key if you’re playing around with varieties, don’t bet the farm on them. Just try a few rows and see how they do. I’m not sure if I can figure out a way to grow a smaller plant, I can plant later in the fall, but then I’m not going to get the yield. So, I’m not sure how to balance that with Ruby June. We are still picking them. Another thing is that they are a little earlier than Chandler. Probably about as early as Albion, but they are a little bit similar to another variety that we grow called Sweet Charlie. I thought the Ruby Junes were done for the season, but we are actually picking some really nice Ruby Junes right now, they had a lull and are now coming back a little bit. So, we are getting some really pretty berries off the Ruby Junes and the flavor is outstanding. The fourth variety I mentioned, Sweet Charlie, we grow generally a small percentage of those. This is an early berry, it comes in 7 to 10 days before Chandler its just something to get…
Eldon: 17:40 – This is another fairly old variety isn’t it?
Lowell: 17:45 – Yeah, I think it is a Florida variety that has been around quite a while. Its one that has pros and cons, it tastes pretty good, a lot of people really really like it and say that it is the sweetest berry you can possibly get. I don’t think it has quite the acidity or tang that a good Chandler berry has, but it is a good berry none the less. Like I say it comes in 7 to 10 days early, that has pros and cons, it tends to be a smaller plant, I’ve had issues with it coming through frost events. The smaller plant, with row covers doesn’t provide quite the protection that a bigger plant with a larger canopy would. Row covers tend to get squashed down on the blooms and can cause damage even through the row cover. If its blooming earlier you have potential for problems with frost protection. We like to grow some Sweet Charlies to get our pickers and markets warmed up. It can start selling them in the store, it gets a bit of a buzz going…
Eldon: 19:14 – Yeah, we can start taking pictures of ripe red fruit.
Lowell: 19:18 – Yeah, start telling people that “its coming, its coming.” So its a great berry for that, and we can even if we have enough volume we can wholesale some of them. But, we don’t pick this berry very long into the season. I’d say this is a couple to three week long berry. Its not that they are nonexistent, but they really taper on to the end so we just kind of treat this as a “get us in the door” variety.
Eldon: 19:46 – Are they a smaller berry?
Lowell: 19:52 – Yeah they would tend to be a smaller berry. I’ve seen some nice big ones, but yeah its more of a Chandler size berry, its not a monster. So, those are the four that we grew this year. They all have their place, they all have advantages and disadvantages. Together I think they work pretty well.
Eldon: 20:14 – Yeah, did you plant any new trial varieties this year?
Lowell: 20:17 – No, so I really backed off, a few years ago I don’t know how many I did, I had a row of this and a row of that. That gets kind of cumbersome so I backed off of that some.
Eldon: 20:32 – In some ways you need a larger sample size to really get a good feel for how they work for you I guess?
Lowell: 20:44 – Larger sample size and its good to actually trial them over several years too because every year is a little bit different. There is a variety that is grown south of here in a little milder climate, its called Camirosa, we’ve grown a few of these in the past, we grew some of them last year. Its a good yielder…
Eldon: 21:12 – Its a pretty hardy berry? Is that what I’m remembering about Camirosa or not?
Lowell: 21:15 – What do you mean hardy?
Eldon: 21:17 – Like as far as, sometimes when we do wholesale they need to sit a little bit going from here to the customer…
Lowell: 21:25 – Oh, right, it would be a good berry to ship in a clam shell, it is a firmer berry and would hold up good for that. I think it takes water better than a Chandler would. It yields, at least in a warm place, there are people getting 2 and 3lb per plant. Flavor wise you need it to be dead ripe, it turns almost a purplish red when totally ripe. That is when it has optimal flavor. It can be a little challenging in a pick your own patch if your customers don’t know that. They can pick under ripe berries that wont taste quite as good as they would when ripe. We don’t grow many of those, we’ve grown a few in the past but it tends to like a little bit warmer weather than what we have here, but it is a very popular berry not too far away. Some we’ve tried in the past, off the top of my head, we grew one called Sweet Anne, the yield potential on these was amazing, the flavor was very good, but it was a very thin skinned berry… a huge berry with beautiful plants. But man, they did not hold up good in the rain.
Eldon: 22:50 – Is that one that a friend of ours down east talked about really liking? Maybe? I could be totally wrong.
Lowell: 22:59 – Uh… I don’t know… there may be a few people growing in a field but almost everyone growing it now are growing it in a high tunnel to protect it from rain, it just does not do good in the rain. There is a berry called Camino Real we’ve grown some of those before and I may grow some more of them again. I may grow some more again, it is an interesting berry, I can’t get the flavor here to taste that great during the first part of the year. From mid season on its pretty good, its a great yielder, especially late in the season, its a steady consistent, nice sized berry, but I don’t know, we didn’t plant any this year. It does well in the heat, like I say late in the season. What are some others that we’ve tried?
Eldon: 23:53 – I can’t think of any…
Lowell: 23:55 – None are popping off the top of my head… Oh, I grew one last year called Archer, it comes from up north somewhere, some university, I got some bare root plants and trimmed them off and made my own plugs and yeah it didn’t yield very well at all. We’ve grown one called Flavor Fest this is out of Maryland, its especially grown, people like it north of here in the cooler places. Maybe over in the mountains it would do pretty good. It doesn’t like fertilizer, or at least as much as we generally feed our Chandlers. Sometimes its hard to have a variety that doesn’t use the same…
Eldon: 24:45 – Just the way we are set up its easier to…
Lowell: 24:50 – Right, you’re treating your whole field the same, it is hard to exclude certain rows. It can be a little challenging growing different varieties in one field. But Flavor Fest, if someone was a little bit farther north I would definitely give that one a try. It has great flavor as you would imagine. I’m quite interested in a couple new varieties they are working on out of North Carolina. We actually were privileged to trial them last year, one of the two or three farms in the state of Virginia. I think its NC State developing these varieties, one of them is called Rocco, I think that is its new name. I knew its number last year, but its actually got a number now. That one is billed more as a Sweet Charlie replacement. We talked about Sweet Charlie being an earlier berry, and they were pretty early, nice big berry with good flavor. My biggest problem with it last year was that it had a very short window, a couple of weeks and then…
Eldon: 26:07 – Very similar to a Sweet Charlie.
Lowell: 26:09 – I know in other places it did very well. It yielded very well down east. I have a friend in VA Beach and he really liked it. There again, it varies, different things, different places, different years… I’m not saying I would never grow that variety here. I was actually more interested in its counter part, which I think is going to be called Liz, it was 038 last year, but I think Liz is its name. They got some amazing yields out of the trials in other places.
Eldon: 26:52 – Did it do well here as well?
Lowell: 26:55 – I can’t exactly remember the numbers off the top of my head.
Eldon: 26:58 – Last year was kind of an abnormal year.
Lowell: 27:00 – Right, and we were culling for rain damage, so over all yield may have been better. The other thing is that we weren’t able to get them till later than we should have planted them. I think that may have hurt our yields some too. This is one that I would definitely like to grow next year possibly. Grow a larger number of them, great nice, big berry, they tasted great I thought. Other folks didn’t think they tasted that great, but here on our farm I thought they were right up there. So, I don’t know… any way its interesting, its educational, you have to keep experimenting and tweaking…
Eldon: 27:46 – Yeah, there are number of universities that are kind of pioneering and exploring new varieties I guess.
Lowell: 27:52 – Yeah, usually VA extension is working on some trials, I think they had some this year. North Carolina is big into this. Yeah, I just keep my eyes on what people are talking about and see if I can learn something and some day maybe we won’t grow Chandler, but that won’t be next year. We’ll be planting a lot of Chandlers just like this year. Probably Albions again, we might back off a little bit, I don’t know. This is the time of the year that we are thinking about varieties. Our strawberry season is winding down and we are thinking “how did they do.” What are some things that we’ve learned? And then the nursery folks start sending out their lists for the coming fall.
Eldon: 28:56 – Pretty soon we need to be ordering.
Lowell: 29:00 – Yeah, we start ordering in June and July and the cycle sort of repeats itself. So, this is kind of the time when strawberry farmers are thinking about varieties any way.
Eldon: 29:10 – Varieties and vacations… hopefully any way.
Lowell: 29:13 – Maybe so.
Eldon: 29:15 – Very good. I can’t think of anything else that we should talk about. Is there anything that you’re thinking about that I’m not remembering?
Lowell: 29:25 – No… we probably went plenty long on varieties, but its kind of a fascinating thing. Its one of the parts of farming that I enjoy. I just enjoy experimenting and tinkering and kind of the science…
Eldon: 29:39 – The figuring out how to grow something well.
Lowell: 29:42 – Yeah, I think thats one of the challenges that I enjoy about farming.
Eldon: 29:47 – Very good. All right folks that wraps up episode 4 of Conversations with Yoders’ Farm. Just a reminder that if you’re enjoying this podcast feel free to give us a review on iTunes or wherever you’re listening to this podcast. If you are listening to it for the first time go ahead and subscribe and you’ll get the next episode whenever it comes out, in two weeks, whenever… at least that is the schedule we are shooting for.
Lowell: 30:19 – Unless I’m on vacation…
Eldon: 30:20 – You can head over to yodersfarm.com/podcast to find links to subscribe in a lot of podcast applications. Or you can listen to it there on the website. There are plenty of ways to listen to the podcast. That is it for this episode, thank you all for listening and we’ll catch you again in about two weeks. See ya!