Going back to their roots

A lone strawberry sails through the air one overcast morning.

“That’s how you get fired!” hisses one strawberry picker.

The strawberry breeze wafting off of the fields at Bell’s Farm is enough to cause the most cautious of drivers to come to a screeching halt at 892 West Beach Road.

If that’s not enough, perhaps the price difference between local strawberries and strawberries from grocery stores may spur you out the door to the strawberry fields. The first picking of the strawberry season yielded many berries on Thursday, June 21, at the farm where berry pickers got off to a great start. Act fast though, because the average strawberry season lasts about one month.

Many of the kids are excited to boast picking strawberries as their first job, but it is not easy work. “After the first week they’re not so excited,” laughed Frank Mueller, owner of Bell’s Farm. An overcast Thursday marked the beginning of strawberry season, and it was met with great enthusiasm from the pickers. “We called about 25 kids,” he estimated, “And about 50 showed up.” Within an hour, well over 50 flats were filled and off to local grocery stores around the island.

Although the strawberries have arrived slightly late, their tardiness is no problem. “We missed Father’s Day, but we should have a great Fourth of July,” said Mueller.

School is out and summer is here, and Ben Harrison, Caitlin O’Neill, and David Bunch know how to ensure a lucrative summer. “The money and the people make it fun,” said O’Neill, whose first experience harvesting the tender berries was last year. Pulling in berries at 17 cents per pound, it pays to be efficient, which is why these pickers take their jobs seriously. “If we get in a strawberry fight we get fired,” she said.

Do the pickers devour them? “Not unless they’re decapitated,” O’Neill said, referring to the still tasty berries that do not have a stem or leaves.

Some of the experienced pickers make as much as $300 from strawberry picking season. With the view of the ocean and the gorgeous weather, the pickers are treated to a unique experience that not many 12-year-olds can boast as a first job.

U-pickers can pick for $1 a pound. “That’s the way to pick them,” Mueller said, “If you can pick them or get someone to pick them for you.”

U-pick is economical for buyers and farmers alike. “We don’t have to pay the workers, so its a better deal,” the farm owner said. The cost of berries has creeped up along with the price of gas. The green cartons that hold the berries used to be 4.5 cents, and have jumped to 10 cents each, a minor cost, but one that nudges berry prices up. This year one flat costs $18.

Most of the strawberries find their temporary home in roadside stands like the one that Dorothy Mueller mans across the street from 7-Eleven, in small grocery stores, and leftovers go to a local cannery. Hurry and pick some up today!

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