Strawberry picking in the Piedmont is as much a tradition as sipping sweet tea on a front porch. And for growers, it’s big business.
But this year, farmers face new challenges in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’ve done it one way for 39 years and for year 40, we’ve got to make changes,” said Rhonda Ingram, who owns and operates Ingram’s Strawberry Farm with her husband, Dean.
Pick-your-own farms like Ingram’s will be allowed to operate, but with recommendations from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture to adhere to social distancing guidelines put out by the CDC.
“We’ll be able to use the field and the rows to help establish social distancing,” Ingram said.
Ingram said her farms rows are spaced five feet apart, and they will only allow customers to pick on every other row. Customers will be required to enter at one end of the row and exit at the other end. Hand sanitizing stations will be placed at each end of the row.
The farm has had to park the tractor and wagon that always carried delighted customers to the fields. Now customers have to walk.
Another change is the way the berries are sold. Traditionally customers have been allowed to bring their own buckets and pay for berries by the pound. Ingram said her customers will be sold a clean bucket for a flat rate.
“Thank the Lord we can still have people picking their own. It’s a tradition,” Ingram said.
But other pick-your-own farms are pivoting to a different model.
“This year, we’re doing it totally different,” said James Kenan, who owns and operates Bernie’s Berries with his wife, Bernie.
For nearly 40 years, the Kenan’s have been offering pick-your-own strawberries by the pound from a six-and-a-half acre field. This year, Kenan is doing a drive-through market for pre-picked berries.
“One person takes the money, another puts them in the car without contact,” Kenan said.
The first day, Bernie’s offered a drive-through, motorists started lining up at 8 a.m. for the 9 a.m. opening. Each car got a maximum of two buckets of berries with each bucket holding about four quarts. But the wait didn’t seem to bother the 250 motorists who drove through. By 10:45 a.m., 500 buckets had been sold and the day’s pick was gone.
“One of the drawbacks is people do not get to examine the container,” Kenan said. “A lot of people like to look.”
The scene was the same at Rudd Farm. The 14-acre farm, which has been a pick-your-own destination for years, also turned to a drive-through service. On its first day, motorists lined up a half mile for berries.
“We serviced more people in two-and-a-half hours than we normally would in a day,” said Joan Rudd, who runs the farm with her husband and sons. “We were overflooded with people.”
But Rudd Farm received an unexpected blow. Within two weeks after opening, eight of its workers tested positive for COVID-19. Fortunately, Rudd had an ace up its sleeve. The farm partnered with Freedom House, a nonprofit that provides shelter and recovery for mothers struggling with addiction. Rudd’s son Matt had been mentoring Freedom House on growing their own strawberries to sell to help fund the organization.
“We just reached out to them and told them our situation and told them if they would like to come and pick some of our berries and sell them, it would help them and it would help us,” Rudd said.
Houston Core, executive director of Freedom House, put out a call on social media asking for volunteers to help pick. By the end of the week, about 200 volunteers, including some of the residents of Freedom House, had picked 10,000 pounds of strawberries. They sold the berries at a stand at Freedom House’s Summerfield farm and the main office in Greensboro. Core said the organization made about $30,000.
“We never thought we could help them by doing something that would help us,” Core said. “It turned out to be a perfect partnership.”
Joan Rudd said she hopes the farm will reopen soon for business and urges customers to check its Facebook page for updates.
Despite adapting to new models, it’s still an uphill climb for strawberry farmers. Ingram said off-site business, such as selling berries to local hospitals, has dried up. And then there is the loss of school groups for farms such as Ingram’s and Rudd. Ingram said in a typical year, the farm gets three to four groups a day. But with schools being closed and a state mandate to limit groups to 10 or less, the farm can no longer count on those field trips.
And then there are the unexpected expenses, such as hiring extra hands to direct traffic for drive-through or, in the case of Ingram, help enforce social distancing guidelines. And those one-time-use buckets are pricey. Kenan said he pays 89 cents per bucket.
Ingram said she hopes the added measures and extra expense will be worth it. She said the farm’s 10 acres of strawberries account for 75% of their annual income. Kenan said his berries generate about 60% of his family’s annual revenue.
“We’ve got to make it work or we’d go bankrupt,” Kenan said.
Customers are coming. They can’t seem to get enough strawberries.
“People have been cooped up in their homes for so long, they just want to get out and do some things,” Kenan said.
With more cool weather predicted this week, berries are slow to ripen and when they do, they are harvested for pre-pick sell. And those sell fast.
Ingram said there aren’t yet enough berries in the field for pick-your-own, so the farm probably won’t open for pick-your-own for another week.
But Ingram assures customers the weather will get warmer and those berries will be ready for picking.
“From where I’m standing right now, it’s a beautiful crop and there’s a lot coming if the weather permits,” she said.
Ingram estimates there will be strawberries into early June if customers are patient and farmers make the best of the new norm.
“It’s something we’re going to have to adapt to,” Ingram said. “Farmers are an adaptable bunch because it’s always something.”