When Robin Hetherington was asked how her strawberry crop was doing, all she could do was laugh.
Hetherington and her husband, Boots, own B and R Farms in Ringtown, Schuylkill County, where they raise 10 acres of strawberries. Things were looking good this year, she said, until a storm pounded the plants with quarter-sized hail on May 28.
“The early berries are showing bruises, but the hard, green berries, we don’t know yet,” Hetherington said. “In the past, when the green fruit was hit by hail, it would get dinged and then ripen around that spot.
“As they ripen, we’ll know more.”
The recent hail storm was the latest episode during a period of challenging weather for many strawberry growers in the northeastern part of the state. Extremely wet conditions in the fields last year, and this spring, raised the risk of disease, she said, adding they have worked extra hard to keep the rows clean.
“Other strawberry growers say the weeds are out of control. As a pick-your-own operation, it takes a lot of work to keep the fields clean for families to come in and pick,” Hetherington said, adding her berries are a little less than two weeks from being ready to pick.
In Nescopeck Township, Luzerne County, strawberry growers avoided the hail, for now, but have faced an increase in labor due to the rain.
Harry Roinick, owner of Pumpkin Hill Produce Farm, said the wet weather has forced him to spray more often to minimize the risk of disease. His nine acres of strawberries are grown on raised beds in plastic, which helped to shed a lot of the rain.
Roinick, who also operates a pick-your-own business, expects his strawberries to be ready around June 3.
“It’s normal this year, but there were some challenges over the winter with plant mortality. The freezing and thawing killed about 50% of the strawberries planted two years ago, while the ones planted last year did well,” he said. “We didn’t have much snow, and that hurt.
“Every strawberry grower wishes for snow in the winter.”
While Roinick deals with winter mortality and Hetherington recovers from the hail, Lackawanna County grower Craig Pallman is dealing with conditions so disastrous that he may have to scrap all 14 acres of his strawberries and be out of production next season.
Last year was wet, he said, and conditions are wetter this spring. Coupled with cooler temperatures, Pallman said the mix is about as bad as it can get for strawberries.
To top it off, Pallman’s strawberries also sustained hail damage from the May 28 storm.
“It hasn’t been good and the plants are showing it. They’re stunted,” he said. “The plants had a stressful fall, and that determines what they’ll do in the spring. It’s not great.”
Pallman runs a pick-your-own operation and he expects to open around June 15-20. He said plants planted last year typically represent the strongest harvest, but this year they will be the weakest producers due to stunted growth.
To make matters worse, Pallman isn’t sure when he’ll get into the fields to plant a new strawberry crop to replace what was damaged.
And there could be a lot of damage.
Aside from the constant rain, cool temperatures and disease risk, the hail storm shredded leaves and knocked off blossoms on some plants.
“This is our 34th season, and next year we could be out for a season, for the first time, if we have to take everything out,” he said. “I’m telling my customers that the berries will ripen, we will open, but the yields will be down and the quality, right now, is unknown.”
Hetherington, who has been growing strawberries for 36 years, was trying to keep a positive outlook despite the wet conditions. But the recent hail storm, on top of everything else, is making it difficult.
She’s been busy keeping her customers updated on Facebook and explaining to them that even though the strawberries may have some hail damage, they’re still edible.
“We need to stay upbeat and be up front with our customers, and they understand it,” Hetherington said. “But when I went into the field and the hail was laying all over the ground, it’s not something that you want to see.”