GRANVILLE, N.Y. — Mark Liebig labors eight months for a chance to earn a year’s pay in the space of about three weeks.
That’s the challenge and risk that comes with being an upstate New York strawberry farmer.
This year, Liebig, like most Northeast growers, has been dodging raindrops during an especially wet June that’s threatened his seven-acre crop in Washington County, near the Vermont border. Thankfully, heavy precipitation came while most berries were still ripening, or they might have begun rotting before picking.
On Saturday, June 15 he couldn’t have asked for more as bright, warm sunshine bathed his fields and a steady stream of people turned out to pick berries for Father’s Day picnics that weekend.
“Strawberries are fairly hearty,” Liebig said. “They can tolerate a wide range of conditions. Cool nights and dry days really help to develop good flavor. In that way, this has been a good season.”
The smiles on customers’ faces supported his claim.
“I like to make jam and we’ll freeze some for strawberry shortcakes later on,” said Stacie White of nearby Hartford, N.Y. “Plus, I have a really good recipe for strawberry rhubarb pie.”
She and her husband, Charles, and their children, C.J. and Ciara, left with a large flat filled with several pounds of fresh-picked berries. “It’s a start,” Stacie White said. “I’m sure we’ll be back for more.”
Liebig’s “u-pick” season began on June 12 and is expected to last through the first weekend in July. He also sells some berries retail at his Little Red Farmstand.
His late father, Philip, a veterinarian, started the business about 50 years ago as a kind of land conservation effort. In 1962, someone wanted to buy the property directly across from the family’s rural home and build a gas station.
Philip Liebig thought that would spoil the view, so he stepped in and bought it first. Then he planted an acre of strawberries to give Mark Liebig and his two step-brothers something to do, so they wouldn’t have time to get in trouble.
“We sold them right out of the garage at our house,” Mark Liebig said.
In 1971, his father purchased another much larger property, several miles away, which has become the farm’s main base of operations with 11 acres dedicated to berries.
“We’re always picking six to seven acres at any given time,” Mark Liebig said.
Every three years, a section of plants are plowed under so fields are always being rotated to prevent insects, disease and weeds. In one direction, rows of new plants are getting established. Elsewhere, a cover crop is growing on another field that will go back into production in a year or two.
In addition to strawberries, Liebig also raises blackcaps, blueberries, fall raspberries and pumpkins. Work starts in late March with pruning blueberry and raspberry bushes. In early April, he removes old straw from the long rows of strawberries. Then it’s time for spraying, and in late April to early May, he gets new fields ready for planting.
Earlier this month, he sewed pumpkin seeds.
“Then you’re right into strawberry season,” Liebig said.
As soon as it’s over, he begins the long arduous task of renovating fields, making sure they’re mowed, sprayed, fertilized and irrigated to keep plants healthy for the following year. Hopefully, by early December, he gets everything done.
To supplement his income, Liebig does carpentry and construction and for many years he spent winters at Bromley Mountain, one of Vermont’s oldest ski resorts, where he was a snowboarding supervisor.
It’s a diverse, rewarding lifestyle he’s enjoyed to the hilt, especially in June when people descend on Strawberry Ridge from throughout the region. “Within a 75-mile circumference there aren’t too many towns we haven’t had some people from,” Liebig said. “There’s something about strawberry picking that resonates with an awful lot of people.”
His favorite use?
“I like them on ice cream. I also like them sliced on tossed salad. Plus I do a daily check each day, looking for damage. So I eat an awful lot right out of the field,” Liebig said, smiling.