After an early start, followed by record rainfall, local strawberries are ripe and ready to eat

It was 2:30 a.m. when Rod Liepold called to make sure the helicopter was coming from Troutdale.

That morning, temperatures were predicted to dip below freezing and Liepold, owner of Liepold Farms in Boring and Burgerville’s main berry distributor, wasn’t going to let a little frost kill a third of his strawberry crop.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Mandy Olsen of Fuji Farms fruit stand in Troutdale, tidies up the strawberry display.The helicopter arrived at Liepold’s 250-acre berry farm at 3:30 a.m. As directed, it hovered over the frost pocket that had begun to settle on 10-acres of his strawberry fields.

Four hours later, after stirring up the low cold air and warming it with its movement, the job was done. The frost hadn’t damaged any strawberries.

“It did the trick,” said Liepold. “Did I need to do it? I don’t know...”

Liepold has been growing berries since 1984. His family has been in the business since 1952. He had never before gone to such lengths to save his crop.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Continuing sunny skies have produced a bountiful harvest of fresh, local strawberries.“I just didn’t want to gamble with it,” he said.

When it comes to raising strawberries amid Mother Nature’s wild weather ways, Oregon farmers have learned to roll with the punches.

After two weeks of unusually high temperatures in early May, followed by three days of record-setting rain, a little frost and torrential downpours, who knew strawberries would make it out alive, let alone bloom into the plump and lusciously sweet red gems now tipping the table of your local fruit stand.

“Timing is everything,” said Bruce Pokarney, spokesman at the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

Unseasonable weather can foul any crop, but as one farmer put it, the only normalcy of an Oregon spring is that it is “predictably unpredictable.”

This May, 14 days of straight sun burst berries into bloom early.

“The 80-degree weather kickstarted everything,” said Ray Fujii of Troutdale’s Fuji Farms, who sells strawberries at a fruit stand at Northeast 242nd Avenue and Southwest Cherry Park Road.

Normally, strawberry harvest doesn’t happen until June 1, Fujii said. But with temperatures easing between 78 and 85 degrees and just 0.17 inches of rain (according to an online weather report by Bruce Sussman of Koin6 News), Fuji was ready to pick his first batch of berries in mid May.

“This year was the second earliest start ever,” said Fujii, who grows strawberries in 25-acres of a 150-acre farm his grandfather started in 1935.

Extra rain adds stress, costs

But just as locals turned up their sprinklers and started to tan, the heat wave was over.

By May 22, the temperature dropped to 50 degrees and the rain set in.

It was the wettest three days in six months, Sussman reported, with record rainfall in several cities, including Portland (1.19 inches) and Troutdale (.88 inches).

Drying fields had started to worry strawberry farmers.

“I was hoping for rain, but not that much rain,” said Fujii. He lost about 20 percent of his strawberries to the wet weather.

Mud, mold and rotting berries was the big issue for Julie Schedeen, who has been growing strawberries for 37 years. She and her husband Tony run a 150-acre farm five miles outside of Boring on Tickle Creek Road.

After the rain, Schedeen had crews pick a whole field of strawberries destined for the cannery, while a second crew scoured the field to pick the remaining moldy fruit.

“You need to get it off if weather conditions are unfavorable,” she said.

That clears the field for the next crop of berries, which will be sold fresh at the market, she said.

“Moldy fruit can infect the new fruit coming in,” said Schedeen, standing at her fresh fruit and vegetable market on Northeast Cleveland Avenue and Northeast Division Street in Gresham.

On the counter in front of her are turquoise cartons of strawberries, freshly caked with a thin layer of mud.

“It’s just plain not unusual to have the first couple of weeks of strawberry season to be really wet,” she said. “We call it Rose Festival Syndrome.”

Strawberries in numbers

While it was the earliest commercial harvest of strawberries in the state since 2005, Pokarney said the weird weather hasn’t caused any real setback statewide.

Most of the problems, he said, are very localized and certainly not widespread.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Strawberries at the Troutdale Fruit Stop were grown in raised beds and less impacted by Mays unending rains. "For the most part, growers have fared well up to this point,” he said.

Pokarney reported this year’s predicted production is roughly the same as last year’s, when about 2,000 acres were harvested resulting in 21.3 million pounds of production valued at $15.6 million. That’s down from 3,100 acres harvested in 2003.

Oregon is number three in strawberry production behind California and Florida.

A fruitful end, (weather permitting)

Now that sun is back, farmers are happy.

“This is ideal what we are having now,” said Liepold. “It’s perfect picking conditions — cool mornings, warms up to the 70s in the afternoon.”

Despite the reverse weather in the beginning of strawberry season (usually it rains then warms up), Liepold predicts a fruitful harvest through June.

“We should have strawberries through the Fourth of July, and Hoods until around June 20,” he said.

“Strawberries grow in the Northwest for a reason,” said Ron Stada, co-owner of the Troutdale Fruit Stop (with Debra Lowry) and another stand on Northeast 124th Avenue and Northeast Sandy Boulevard in Portland. “They like moderate temperatures.”

The two grow a variety of Hood, Albion and Shuksan strawberries in unused fields off Northeast Sandy Boulevard, in addition to 10-acres of land leased by a local family.

Because his strawberries are grown in raised beds, Stada said the rains didn’t affect their crop much.

He has been selling fruits and vegetables since age 6.

“All in all, this is strawberry weather,” Stada said. “And really, the weather makes strawberries good … there is a lot of natural moisture and when the sun comes out, it makes them sweeter.”

And, he added, “Nothing makes people any happier than strawberries in the spring.”

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