Summer's late start delays Whidbey strawberry harvest

Gerald Bell searches for the smattering of red strawberries in his crop delayed by cold weather. - Rebecca Olson / Whidbey News-Times
Gerald Bell searches for the smattering of red strawberries in his crop delayed by cold weather.
— image credit: Rebecca Olson / Whidbey News-Times

The eight acres of bushy plants should hang heavy with brilliantly red strawberries. Sun-warmed air should be alight with their sweet, filling scent. But instead, fog looms over the plants, its gray tendrils blending in with the small, pale green strawberries.

However, every once in awhile, a treasured bit of red peeks through the green like a ruby.

“We’re just finding a few ripe berries starting now,” said Gerald Bell of Bell’s Farm on West Beach Road on Wednesday. “We’re about one month late, but we’ve never been this late.”

The culprit is the surplus of chilly, cloudy weather.

“The cold has delayed the berries. We need some sunshine,” said Bell.

Bell’s Farm began in 1946. They’ve been picking strawberries since 1950. Bell can be found among the long rows of strawberries, hoe in hand, destroying weeds.

“We go round and round and round. It’s been a long season for weeding because they just keep growing from all the cold and wet,” Bell said.

The only time Bell missed a crop of strawberries was in 1956 because the crop froze. Every other year, the fields have been full of people picking the ripe berries.

“We’ve normally started picking by now,” Bell said. Last year, they started on June 21. Usually, the start date is June 2 or 3.

“We’re in the longest days of the year, so that should help the growing,” said Bell.

So far, nearly 60 kids have signed up as summer berry-pickers. They get paid by the pound. Usually, Bell sees a lot of 14-or 15-year-olds. But this year, the pickers can’t start making money until after July 4.

“We want to pick vine-ripe berries and the sun sweetens them,” Bell explained.

Currently, pickers could find a few boxes of ripe berries if they were in a treasure-hunting mood. Bell collected enough for a delicious breakfast of strawberry pancakes. However, he wants a lot of berries when he allows u-picking so pickers don’t end up unsatisfied with too many green strawberries.

Bell’s Farm offers u-picking as well as selling the berries at the Coupeville and Oak Harbor Farmers Markets and the corner by 7-Eleven gas station. Also, strawberries can be ordered.

When Bell first started growing strawberries, he sold his entire 15 acre crop to a cannery in Burlington. Eventually, the cannery went out of business, so Bell switched to a smaller u-pick field. Soon, stores wanted his strawberries, so now, he sells to Whidbey Island stores, especially independent businesses on the south end of the island.

“We don’t know how long we can keep going down to the sound end with gas prices,” Bell said regretfully.

Bell’s Farm also produces hybrid cabbage seed, grass for local dairies and various vegetables. Bell’s niece took lettuce and radishes to the Farmers Market this week. Strawberries aren’t the only victim of the cold weather--Bell’s corn is still small and his peas aren’t blooming yet.

“I don’t know how long we will stay in the strawberry business because of the way things are going,” Bell said. Gas prices make berry transportation difficult. Also, the area around the farm is becoming housing developments and the farm might fall to that, too.

Next year, Bell’s Farm will cut their strawberry acreage in half to four acres. Their older four acres need to be plowed over due to insects. This happens every four years. The four acres of younger strawberries are doing well.

Despite the cold weather woes, Bell battles weeds up and down the rows of strawberries, and he’ll keep it up until they’re ripe and surrounded by busy pickers.

“Picking season is what we work the whole year for, so we’re anxious--we should be right in the middle of it now. But this looks like a good crop if they would just size up and ripen up,” Bell said.

The sun finally came out Friday, so Whidbey Islanders will soon have their favorite summer treat, just in time for the 4th of July.

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