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Strawberry harvest in progress

Staff photo / Jim LarsenStraw boss Nicole Heinz watches over her flock of pickers at the scenic Bell’s Farm strawberry field on West Beach Road. Whidbey Islanders’ craving for fresh strawberries is satisfied by the farm and about 70 kids who work hard for their spending money. - Jim Larsen
Staff photo / Jim LarsenStraw boss Nicole Heinz watches over her flock of pickers at the scenic Bell’s Farm strawberry field on West Beach Road. Whidbey Islanders’ craving for fresh strawberries is satisfied by the farm and about 70 kids who work hard for their spending money.
— image credit: Jim Larsen

Whidbey Islanders love farming, especially when it produces something as sweet and succulent as juicy, sun-ripened strawberries.

The strawberry harvest at Bell’s Farm on West Beach Road is always the most anticipated agricultural event of the early summer, and this year is no exception.

Bell’s Farm strawberries started arriving in grocery stores just in time to assure the island would be awash in strawberry shortcake on the 4th of July.

Throughout the island, consumers snap up deliveries of Bell’s Farm strawberries as soon as they’re brought to stores.

The deliveries are made possible by dozens of kids who flock to Bell’s Farm early each morning to pick the berries. This year’s crop of kids has been as bountiful as the strawberries.

“We’ve got about 70 kids,” said Dorothy Mueller, one of the family members involved in the farming operation. “We’re lucky. Usually we have half that many. I have no idea what happened.”

Suddenly, picking berries has become popular with the 12-to-15 year old set. It’s one of the few paying jobs children of that age can hold, and if they work diligently they can make some spending money.

Casey Mitchell, 14, walked up to the scale operated by Ed Van Rensum with a flat of plump red berries she said she had picked in 20 minutes. At 15 cents a pound, plus incentives, Mitchell can make $8 to $10 a morning. But it’s more than money that attracts her to the 10-acres of berries. “I like the people, and even picking in the rain. It’s kind of fun for me,” she said.

As he weighed Mitchell’s berries, Van Rensum said she is one of their best pickers. “She’s a good picker — she picks the right berries,” he said.

The farm dates back to 1950. Today, it’s owned by Jerry Bell and his nephew and partner, Frank Meuller.

Standing among the berries on Wednesday, Meuller liked what he saw. The berry fields offer a fine view of Admiralty Inlet and the Olympics, and the fields were full of kids diligently picking berries. “We’ve got a lot of good kids, good weather, and good berries,” he said.

What could be better?

Picking started a bit late this year, on June 24, and will continue through next week and perhaps a little longer. Then the fields will be cleaned up by u-pickers for about 10 days.

“All of the berries are sold locally,” Meuller said. Except for some lesser quality berries which are hauled to a processor in Skagit County.

Bell’s Farm is a family operation. Jerry Bell coordinates deliveries with the stores, while Frank Meuller organizes the picking crew. Jerry’s wife takes orders and runs the “cool room,” and other relatives and friends help where needed. Besides strawberries, the farm grows hybrid cabbage seed, hay and grain, and operates a popular flower and vegetable stand. The farm consists of 65 acres plus some 80 acres of other people’s land the farm leases.

Generations of North Whidbey residents have worked in the Bell’s Farm fields as kids, and they probably all remember hard-nosed straw bosses whose job it is to keep them working rather than throwing berries or otherwise goofing off.

One of the straw bosses this year is Nicole Hines, who also drives the early-morning berry bus. Naturally, she’s a relative. “We’re all related,” she said.

Hines straddles a row of berries as she watches the kids work. “I make sure everyone’s moving, that they pick the rows clean and don’t overpick,” she said.

Asked if she every fires a kids, she admits it happens occasionally. One boy looked up from his work and interjected, “She fired one kid four times!”

Hines said the observation was correct. “I fire’em for goofing off and they come back,” she said. Generally, the fired employee will ask another member of the family for his job back and they’ll agree. So sometimes Hines sees workers in the field that she had fired the day before.

But it’s mostly in fun. Hines banters back and forth with the kids, who hardly seem intimidated by her presence. But they do keep their mind on their job when they know she’s around.

All the kids questioned Wednesday enjoyed their work. Some wear Walkmans and listen to music as they slowly push their wheeled carts down the row. Others chatter and nibble on berries.

Matt Widdison, 13, said this is his second year picking berries “for the money.” He actually prefers to pick berries in the rain because “when it rains they weigh a lot more.”

Katherine Mitchell, 13, had another reason to like her job. “You can eat as much free strawberries as you want,” she said.

Paige Mueller, 11, explains that she too is one of the family. “I’ve been picking since I was 10 because I’m in the family,” she said. State work rules don’t apply to farm family members.

Brittany Dickinson, 13, was topping off her second flat of the day. “I like it,” she said. “It’s a good way to make money when you’re not old enough to have a job.”

Jerry Bell was helping in the fields on Wednesday as he has for decades. He said his parents started the farm in 1950 with one acre, and since then there have been berries every year but one. A big freeze in the winter of 1955 killed the crop of 1956. “That’s the only year we’ve missed,” he said. It was known as Bell Brothers Farm until his brother Frank passed away.

As Bell watched the kids pick, he knew many of their surnames. “The kids out here now are third or fourth generation,” he said. “This is the only job a kid can get from 12 to 14 years old.”

Neighbor Gerrit Tyhuis was watching the work on Wednesday, waiting for someone to tell him where he could do some u-picking. He can remember when the Bells started their strawberry farm in 1950, and his family has picked there every year since.

Thyhuis’ children have all grown up and moved away, but on Wednesday he was anticipating their return for the holiday. “We’ve got kids coming home,” he said. “If they don’t have fresh berries they’ll be disappointed.”

That goes for all of Whidbey Island.

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