Ambrose Family Farm Instagram
Ambrose Family Farm posted this picture of strawberries on Instagram on Dec. 23
As the flakes fell last Wednesday, most of the Lowcountry hunkered down, thrilled with a rare snow day. But for farmers it meant another hiccup in the never ending gamble that is growing food.
Sara Clow, GrowFood Carolina’s General Manager, was already deep into taking stock of available produce when we reached her on Thursday. “The biggest concerns are actually losing the citrus trees — most of the fruit is already picked. There are definitely farmers with greens/veg in the ground that will be affected, but the farmers know having anything in the ground this time of year is a risk.”
As the snow melts and citizens scrape their sidewalks clean, farmers are just taking stock of their crops and any subsequent losses. And while the general consensus seems to be “we won’t know exactly what the storm meant for coastal produce for a while” it’s pretty clear where strawberries stand:“We lost all the strawberries we had on the plants,” says Pete Ambrose, owner of Ambrose Family Farm.
Just a few weeks ago, Ambrose posted a picture on Instagram of a huge, juicy red strawberry with the caption: “I must be dreaming but you usually don’t taste dreams.”
Now the post could read “Dream on.” Thanks to the freak snowstorm, the chance of an early strawberry crop, the likes of which Charleston has seen the last two seasons with berries for sale in February, is likely kaput. However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing for farmers.
“Honestly, it’s a relief,” says Ambrose. “I’ve had two winters in a row and the amount of labor it takes to uncover and cover the berries and sort through what made it and what didn’t make it, I didn’t care what I made I wasn’t making any money. I was just giving people jobs.” Ambrose says that the last two years have been weather anomalies that, quite frankly, hurt his U-Pick business.
Last year local strawberry dishes popped up at area restaurants as early as the second week of February. The year before that was nearly just as early causing a double harvest year. But that’s not the norm.
“You should normally get one harvest and it should start the middle of March and go to the first of April,” explains Ambrose. “We plant them at the same time as Florida plants theirs. They pick them all winter and are done by the time we start. The last two years, it hurt the U-Pick because I had already picked a lot of berries and I threw a lot of them away. I would just soon have a heavy crop when they’re supposed to come and people are expecting them to come.”
Walter and Cathy Early grow strawberries in Holly Hill and say the snow isn't a bad thing for their crop
Walter Early, the owner of Hickory Bluff Berry Farm in Holly Hill echoes Ambrose.
“Last year was just abnormal. We were picking mid-February,” he says. “This year is more normal. Now, it’s not normal to have a week of this kind of temperature, but we hope as the season progresses, sometime around, oh I don’t know mid February, we can start getting blooms and things will start picking up a little bit.”
According to GrowFood Carolina’s Farm Manager Jake Sadler, strawberry plants will survive this cold, but their blooms will die. “Many growers use row covers to cover the plants when temperatures hover around freezing, which allow the plants to keep their blooms and continue to produce fruit during the winter.” But the temperatures we’ve experienced this week have killed all blooms regardless of when or how growers have applied row covers. This means that the plants will require another 45 days, or more, to put on blooms and fruit again.
On the plus side, the snow could ultimately keep strawberries safe as the temps continue to drop.
“The snow is acting like a blanket and has tucked the crops in,” says Greg Johnsman, owner of Geechie Boy Mill. Johnsman has grown and sold strawberries from his farm on Wadmalaw Island. “To bore you about strawberries, they have so many crowns and each crown represents how many berries each plant can produce. The cold will not hurt the berries but give more time for the crown development and that should create better berries and not space them out so long and bring them in the Spring like they should.”
So that’s what farmers are betting on now. Turns out our super freaky snowstorm was something of a godsend for some strawberry farmers, especially those with U-Pick spots.
"Right now, everything looks pretty good,” says Early. “Plants look good, the weather has been good. We’ve had good growth. We’re in pretty good shape.”