Pick-Your-Own Pulls Strawberry Lovers to Middle of Nowhere

6/8/2013 7:00 AM
By Dick Wanner Reporter

NEW HOLLAND, Pa. — If “nowhere” has that middle we’re always hearing about, it could be at 1031 Valley View Road outside New Holland.

It’s not an easy spot to find. Nevertheless, as they have for the past 35 years, strawberry lovers have descended on the Sauder Strawberry farm to pick their fill of Earlyglow, Wendy and Chandler berries.

One day recently, a line of cars was parked outside the farm’s weighing shed, and as one car left, loaded with berries, another took its place.

The six-week picking season lasts from late May until the end of June, but for Grace and Harvey Sauder, their three-acre strawberry patch is a year-round business.

During most of the year, they manage the nitty-gritty details of getting strawberry plants into the ground and coaxing them to bear fruit for three or four years.

During picking season, the focus switches from berries to people. People are much less predictable than berry plants, but over the decades, the Sauders have learned how to guide their 300 to 400 regular customers into the fields where the berries are most plentiful.

If Grace Sauder directs a customer to row 34 and gives her a red flag, the customer will pick in row 34 until her bucket is full, then plant a red flag where she’s stopped so the next customer will know where to start. It’s a simple but effective system.

Another technique is to sell berries by the pound, rather than the quart. A level quart is one thing, but a quart with a 6-inch pyramid of berries on top is money just walking out of the field.

At the Sauders’ farm, customers bring their containers to the weighing shed. Then they go to their designated rows, fill them, bring them back to the shed and pay $1.80 a pound — this year — for the berries they’ve picked.

The Sauders’ go-here, pay-by-the-pound approach apparently sits well with their customers, who smile as they pull into parking spaces by the shed, smile while they’re picking and are still smiling as they walk to their cars.

The strawberries are just part of that story. The farm itself is in a beautiful spot, and picking berries makes for a great family outing.

Word of mouth has helped build the business, but the Sauders have also advertised in local print media, distributed refrigerator magnets and, for the first time this year, put up a Facebook page.

During that recent visit, a dozen or so people of all ages were in a field loaded with berries. Children and adults explored the rows for the biggest, juiciest fruits. They stooped, they picked, they talked, they laughed. And would you believe it? There was no smartphone in sight, no blank stares at silent screens. It was people to people surrounded by nature.

Nature has been pretty good to the Sauders. Their first pick-your-own strawberry patch was near the house, by an apple tree. It was an add-on enterprise to their 55-acre dairy farm, and a project that their eight children could help with.

As time went on, the children got married, moved off the farm, gave their parents 33 grandchildren and are today scattered from Martindale — just down the road — to Watkins Glen, N.Y., which is a ways up the road.

Eventually, the cows were sold, the milking equipment idled and much of the ground rented to a neighbor, while the strawberry business, along with a few steers and a patch of thornless blackberries, became the Sauders’ main farming activity.

The 2013 strawberry season will end this month. The 2014 season will begin in July, when Harvey Sauder will renovate the plants that will continue in production.

They’ll be mowed to a 3-inch stubble. He uses a mix of herbicides to control weeds between the plastic-covered rows. Any cultivation that’s to be done between established rows is accomplished with a Weed Eater.

Also in July, he’ll use a 7-foot-wide tiller to prepare ground for new plants. Then he’ll cover the rows for new plants with black plastic. The Sauders use a tractor-drawn planter that punches through the plastic and makes a hole for the strawberry plugs, which is what the new plants are called.

Drip irrigation lines draw water from a nearby pond to provide both moisture and fertilizer to all the plants in the Sauders’ fields.

There’s quite a bit of science to strawberry production, and the Sauders credit Penn State Extension, especially Kathy Demchak, as a source of good advice over the years.

Some of that advice has been a bit eye-opening. For example, the Sauders’ berries used to be in rows that ran east-to-west. Some years ago, they changed row orientation to run north to south. What possible difference could that make?

Harvey Sauder explained that the sun in the northern hemisphere always comes a little bit from the south. East-to-west rows get more sun on the south side than the north. North-to-south rows get morning sun from the east and afternoon sun from the west, so in a day’s time, both sides get the same amount of sun.

That’s about as subtle as practical science gets, but Sauder said it has made a noticeable difference in yield.

Plasticulture — growing the plants under black plastic covers — has also made a difference and is a practice the Sauders began about 15 years ago.

The plastic controls weeds, keeps water in the soil and produces a micro-climate that can be one or two degrees warmer than the surrounding air.

When the surrounding air starts dipping into the low 30s — which is what happened this year in early May — that microclimate can make a huge difference. The Sauders’ crop escaped any serious damage from that cold spell, and the plastic may have played a role.

Row covers are another technique the Sauders picked up from their research with Extension and other sources.

Around Thanksgiving each year, Harvey Sauder covers about half the crop with 60-by-100-foot sheets of white polyester. The covers keep the ground warmer and the berries under the covers start yielding a week or two earlier than the uncovered berries.

The covers help turn what would otherwise be a monthlong pick-your-own business into a six-week season.

For directions to the Sauder Strawberry farm, call 717-572-8394 or check out its Facebook page at Sauder Strawberry.

Dick Wanner can be reached at rwanner.eph@lnpnews.com or 717-419-4703.

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