Fruit ripens, pickers needed

There are plenty of strawberries to pick but not enough pickers to pick’em.

The picker shortage worries Jerry Bell, whose acres of strawberries off West Beach Road are ripening quickly in this unusually warm, dry springtime.

The weather has induced the strawberries to ripen several weeks early this year, which is no problem in Bell’s irrigated fields. “It was warm and dry in April; we watered in April and early May,” Bell said. “We’ve never done that before. We’ve been eating ripe berries since the fifth of May.”

Ripening berries isn’t a problem, but finding someone to pick them this early is difficult.

“Our problem is getting kids to sign up,” Bell said.

Typically, strawberry picking starts around June 15, about the time kids get out of school. This year, the strawberries are getting ripe and kids are still thinking of schoolwork, not the money to be made in the berry fields.

“Us farmers are going to need some help,” Bell said. “But the kids aren’t even thinking of it yet.”

The Bell’s Farm “help wanted” ad in the newspaper usually produces a large crop of eager young pickers, but not this year. Bell said he needs about 50 pickers to start as early as Saturday, May 29.

Frank Mueller, Jerry Bell’s nephew and farming partner, said pickers usually work from mid-June to mid-July. This year, they’re needed right now and likely won’t pick much beyond the 4th of July.

“Beautiful fruit,” Mueller said, lifting up strawberry foliage to reveal a slew of fat, red berries.

There aren’t enough ripe berries to start offering u-pick yet, Mueller said, but there are plenty for a crew of pickers to start working on. If they’ll only call 678-4808.

Other farmers are also concerned about the dry weather. Ron Muzzall, whose family raises cattle and related crops near Oak Harbor, described April as “very abnormal,” with less than one-quarter inch of rain for the month. May has been somewhat better, with over an inch recorded through Tuesday, and more expected this week.

Muzzall said this comes on top of last summer’s drought, which is still having an effect. “Things are behind,” he said. “The big concern is the marshes, swamps and aquifers are pretty stressed.”

As always, farmers are dependent on the weather for success. “We’re hoping for significant moisture,” Muzzall said. He’s not alone.

Start pickin’

Kids can pick up some money for picking strawberries starting this Saturday at Bell’s Farm on West Beach Road. You must be 12 years of age or older. To sign up call 678-4808.

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