Slim pickings: Little sun, too much rain slowing Upper Valley berry season

Slim pickings: Little sun, too much rain slowing Upper Valley berry season
Slim pickings: Little sun, too much rain slowing Upper Valley berry season
Linda Friedman, left, and Roy Mark, middle, co-owners of Wellwood Orchards in Springfield, Vermont, watch as Molly Smith, of Charlestown, New Hampshire, leaves their store with a flat of strawberries on Wednesday, July 5. On day 21 of picking, the berries are becoming soft because of the rainy weather, said Friedman, and the orchard has lowered its prices on pick-your-own strawberries hoping to encourage customers to glean as many as possible. She’s hoping for another week of picking to help replace income from their lost apple crop. “If they’re going to rot on the ground, we’d rather people come and pay us a pittance for them,” said Friedman. Photo by James M. Patterson/Valley News

This story by Patrick Adrian was first published by the Valley News on July 5.

WEST LEBANON, New Hampshire — With berry season underway, Upper Valley farmers said their pick-your-own patches could use more sunshine to offset June’s rainy days and cool temperatures. A mid-May freeze also killed or damaged many fruit blossoms.

While the impact may not be as noticeable to customers, the problems have been especially acute for strawberry growers. But a lack of sunlight and warmth also is causing delays to the start of raspberry and blueberry picking at many farms, as well as some anxiety about the weather to come.

“This has been a spring and early summer to forget,” said Becky Nelson of Beaver Pond Farm in Newport, New Hampshire. “We, like everyone else, are waterlogged. … We are hoping for some sunshine soon to sweeten the berries, as too much rain and not enough sunshine affect the taste.”

Newport saw nearly 5 inches of rainfall in June, the most for that month since 2015, which recorded 5.7 inches.

This amount of rainfall is not unprecedented, several farmers said. Since 2010, there have been five years where the Upper Valley accumulated at least 4 inches in June.

However, this past June the rain mostly occurred during the final two weeks — the heart of the strawberry-picking season.

On Tuesday, Wellwood Orchards in Springfield, Vermont, announced a sale on its PYO — or pick-your-own — strawberries of $1.99 per pint, a discount of 60%.

Linda Friedman, co-owner of Wellwood, said the end-of-season strawberry sale is intended to “clean up” the harvestable berries that remain in the patches.

“There are a lot of soft or rotting berries because of the rain, but there are a lot of good ones, too,” Friedman said. “And if people are making jam, they don’t care if some berries are soft.”

two people standing in a green field.
Melia Willis, 9, of Springfield, Vermont, left, looks for a next strawberry plant to pick from as her cousin Kyle Wright, 17, of Smyrna, Tennessee, right, checks over a berry at Wellwood Orchards in Springfield on Wednesday. While there was nothing to be done to save their apples from the mid-May frost, the orchard protected the strawberries by using overhead irrigation to encase the plants in ice. Photo by James M. Patterson/Valley News

In previous summers, the strawberry picking might have continued an additional week, though the wetness and the lack of sun are limiting the season to three weeks, which is just within the low end of the average season duration, according to Friedman.

What has most impacted Upper Valley fruit growers this year was the brutal cold snap in May, which not only impacted early varieties of raspberries and blueberries but fruit trees including apples, peaches and cherries.

Wellwood, whose PYO apple orchard is a popular tourist destination during the fall, lost nearly all its apple blossoms — as well as its peach, plum and cherry blossoms — when the low temperature on May 18 plummeted to 23 degrees.

As a result, Friedman said that strawberries, raspberries and blueberries are Wellwood’s only pick-your-own fruits this year.

“That’s the really serious storyline,” Friedman said. “We’ll be lucky to have enough apples to put on our store shelves. We will have to try to be creative with our events in the fall.”

Friedman partly attributed the freeze’s impact to bad timing, in that it struck right when many fruit trees and bushes were blossoming.

“If it had happened a few days earlier or a few days later,” the freeze might not have such an issue, Friedman noted.

Keith and Kristy Brodeur, owners of Bascom Road Blueberry Farm in Newport, New Hampshire, said the freeze killed the blossoms on their early-variety blueberry bushes.

“Farmers in the last 50 years haven’t seen it get that cold that late into the season,” said Keith Brodeur, who researched historical records to determine the rarity of the freeze.

Brodeur said on Monday his opening date for pick-your-own blueberries will be about “a week to 10 days” later than past years.

“We were tentatively hoping to open this (coming) weekend, but we will need multiple days of sun (to fully ripen the fruit),” Brodeur said.

Pete Bartlett, of Bartlett’s Blueberry Farm in Newport, New Hampshire, also said his opening this year will be later than his “average” start date in recent years, which has usually been around the second week of July.

Bartlett noted that blueberry production in recent years has been ramping up slightly earlier than 30 years ago due to warmer temperatures in the growing area.

Nelson, of Beaver Pond Farm, who hopes to open her pick-your-own raspberries later this week, said the cold snap did some damage to her early-variety raspberries.

“The blueberries look good, and the raspberries seem to be starting out OK,” Nelson said. “We are beginning to see some frost damage, or ‘winter kill,’ in the raspberries where they seem to be forming a full crop, but then the vascular structure can’t keep up with the vascular damage. They look great at first, but then they wither and die before the berries are pickable.”

Pooh Sprague, owner of Edgewater Farm in Plainfield, New Hampshire, noted that the impacts of this season’s weather — including the cold snap — will differ from one farm to the next, based on their crops and operation.

While Edgewater provides pick-your-own strawberries, the majority of Sprague’s strawberries are harvested for wholesale — which relieves some of the stress about leaving berries exposed in the field to heavy amounts of moisture or about rain driving away customers to pick the berries.

“Pick-your-own is nice, but it’s not a dependable way to get rid of your crop,” Sprague said.

The rainfall has its benefits, Sprague noted. It helps the blueberries “size up,” for example. And despite the rain, the strawberries this year have been surprisingly flavorful.

But the rain needs to be balanced with sunshine, growers said.

“The biggest problem with the excess wet in any fields that have swales or dips is the potential for a waterborne fungal disease called phytopthora root rot,” Nelson said. “We lost an entire planting to it in the past, so we are hoping it doesn’t make a resurgence, as it can destroy entire raspberry plantings and affect other crops planted in that space down the road.”

“There is no amount of cultivating practice or chemical spray as a remedy when you’re dealing with this much wet and mugginess,” Sprague said.

The current weather forecast looks more promising than previously anticipated, with several fully or partly sunny days projected between today and July 14.

“I think it’s going to be an average year for us,” Brodeur said.

“But it’s hard to say until the season’s over.”

Read the story on VTDigger here: Slim pickings: Little sun, too much rain slowing Upper Valley berry season.