When strawberries are in season on Whidbey Island, Colleen VanDyke knows that her phone will start ringing between 7 and 7:30 each morning.
It’s been that way for the 20 years she’s worked at the Prairie Center Red Apple Market in Coupeville as the spring shifts to summer. She’ll pick up the produce department phone and hear a familiar voice making the same greeting: “It’s Jerry from Bell’s Farm.”
She’s never met the 86-year-old farmer, but feels like she knows him.
“He’s a very, very sweet man,” she said.
Strawberries from Bell’s Farm on West Beach Road have been one of the sweetest agriculture stories in Central Whidbey for more than a half century.
For a season that is exceptional if it lasts a month, the relationship between the berries and those who consume them is short and sweet.
Yet, the love is eternal.
“There isn’t a better berry in the world,” said Lynn Bixler, who moved to Whidbey Island in 1980. “The California berries do not compare.”
Jerry Bell and his wife LaVonne own the 65-acre farm and share ownership of the strawberry business with their nephew and niece, Frank and Renee Mueller.
Jess Bell and sons Jerry and Russ came to Whidbey Island from Toppenish in 1946, but didn’t attempt to grow strawberries until four years later.
“We picked our first crop in 1950,” Jerry Bell recalled Monday as he sorted through berries. “We froze out one year. We didn’t have any berries in 1955.”
Bell has seen the family-run operation go through many changes over six decades. Berries started out being produced for canneries but now are picked daily almost exclusively for the fresh market, though Bell’s Farm has started making its own jam.
During a season that generally lasts from 20-24 days, the pace is frantic and the results can be astounding. Last year, the farm produced about two-and-a-half tons of strawberries, Renee Mueller said.
This year, berries began ripening a little early and the season kicked off June 14 at the Coupeville Farmers Market.
Six days a week, kids (who must be at least 12) and some adults arrive on the farm at 8 a.m. and comb the fields, looking for a bright, shiny and red berry about the size of a quarter or bigger.
About five acres of the farm are used to grow strawberries.
“It’s got to be ripe but not overripe,” said Bob Moore, who’s worked with pickers for 16 years.
The pickers, who earn 18 cents a pound, bring their flats of strawberries to get weighed. From there, strawberries are examined carefully by adults, including Jerry Bell himself, then lifted into vehicles for transport.
Dorothy Mueller, Jerry Bell’s niece, will set up a stand on Highway 20 in Oak Harbor as well as the Oak Harbor Farmers Market on Thursday nights and Coupeville Farmers Market Saturday.
Trevor Mueller, Jerry’s great nephew, delivers orders to stores.
The farm also offers a U-pick option for customers to pick their own berries.
Dorothy Mueller was visited by a seemingly endless stream of customers after she set up a stand in Oak Harbor. Most raved about the berries’ sweetness, offering theories as to why Bell’s Farm berries get that way. Some suggested a reason might be the breeze that sweeps over the fields from nearby Puget Sound, keeping the berries cooler longer.
The berries seem to have a lure. Moore, who lives in Florida, only comes to Whidbey to help his friends during berry season.
Trevor Mueller lives in Portland other than a month out of the year.
Dorothy Mueller grew up on the farm, then went away for college and a career. Fifteen years later, she came back, returning to the farm in 1992.
“I was making money,” she said, “but I wasn’t happy.
“I’m happy now.”