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U-pick strawberry season underway in Spokane area

UPDATED: Wed., June 21, 2017

Emmalyn Maidoff, 2, wore her Lady Bug outfit while picking strawberries at Carver Farms in Newman Lake on Tuesday, June 20, 2017. Kathy Plonka/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Kathy Plonka)
Emmalyn Maidoff, 2, wore her Lady Bug outfit while picking strawberries at Carver Farms in Newman Lake on Tuesday, June 20, 2017. Kathy Plonka/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Kathy Plonka)

Strawberries have a short, sweet season in the Inland Northwest, and people line up to get them while the picking is good.

Vehicles started pulling into Carver Farms at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday for the first day of U-pick season. The farm near Newman Lake officially opened at 7 a.m., and within a half-hour, about 300 people had descended on the fields to harvest one of the first fruits of summer.

“Jam, lots of jam. Smoothies. Syrup for waffles. And pies, fresh strawberry pies,” said Sarah Keevy, of Spokane Valley, describing the incentives she used to coax five kids out of bed for the early morning harvest.

Keevy expected to leave the field with about 15 pounds of berries. Her friend, Jennifer Hogan, brought her four kids to Carver Farms with similar expectations.

“They turn into an army of strawberry pickers,” Keevy said of the children, ages 4 to 13.

Farm owner Marv Carver is a 40-year veteran of strawberry season. On Tuesday, he was directing traffic and helping assign families rows to pick. Opening day always brings a crowd to the farm, especially when the weather cooperates, he said.

“I think the local berries are so important to people because of the flavor,” Carver said.

Berries that come in plastic containers can’t compare to a field-ripened strawberry, he said.

Alternating bouts of rain and warm weather this spring created conditions for a plentiful crop of high-quality berries. Carver Farms was frost-free in May, which led to better fruit development, said Marv’s wife, Joanne Carver.

Pickers were complimentary as they filled their buckets.

“You can hardly walk without stepping on the berries,” said Jennifer Pedro, of Priest River, Idaho, who was picking with her husband, Francis, and her 90-year-old grandmother, Jane Pool.

Edna and Richard Neer of Sagle, Idaho, left their house around 6 a.m. to get to Carver Farms for the first picking of the fields. They hoped to leave with 20 pounds of berries “or better,” Edna Neer said.

She’s the name behind Grandma Edna’s Jams and Jellies, a line of about 30 products sold at the Moscow, Idaho, farmers market. Her husband is her ace picker.

While Edna stopped to stretch her back, Richard nimbly picked his way through the low-growing bushes, berries accumulating in his 2 1/2-gallon bucket.

Carver Farms’ U-pick berries sell for $1.39 per pound. Berries can be a high-risk crop for farmers because production isn’t always consistent, Marv Carver said. Harsh winters can damage plants and the pollination period is critical for berry development. With a plentiful crop this year, the season should run through early July, though the first two weeks are usually the best picking, Marv Carver said.

Walters’ Fruit Ranch at Green Bluff has already had five days of strawberry picking. After early openings in May the past two years, customers have been eager to get into the fields, said Jason Morrell, the farm’s co-owner.

The opening day of U-pick at Walters’ Fruit Ranch was June 10.

“We’ve never seen that kind of demand,” Morrell said. “The farm opened at 9 a.m. and we were picked out by 10:30. …We sold about 2,000 pounds of berries in 90 minutes.”

Walters’ Fruit Ranch is scheduled to open again for picking Thursday, but Morrell encourages people to call ahead because dates can change based on weather.

At Siemers Farms on Green Bluff, opening day is scheduled for Wednesday, the first full day of summer.

That’s actually a typical starting date for the family-run operation, said Byron Siemers, one of the farm’s managers.

“If someone asks me in December when the first day of strawberry picking is, I’ll say the first day of summer,” he said.

Forty years ago, the farm was among the first on Green Bluff to allow children in the U-pick fields, said Donna Siemers, another of the farm’s managers. It’s gratifying for her to see generations of families picking strawberries, including adults whose parents brought them to Siemers when they were children.

“Kids have so much fun in the berry patch,” she said. “It should be fun to come to the farm.”

If Wednesday is a typical opening day, hundreds of U-pickers will surge through the farm gates.

“I never have time to count them,” Donna Siemers said. “I’m always too busy.”

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