Bill Beinlich of Triple B Farms in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, has been growing strawberries for 23 years and has never faced a season as challenging as this year’s.
And it’s not only because of the weather.
While Beinlich is hoping his 4 acres of strawberries survive a recent period of frigid nighttime temperatures, he’s also keeping his fingers crossed that customers can pick the crop once the season opens later this month as COVID-19 restrictions remain in place.
“A lot of our pick-your-own fields require a hay ride to get to them, and with social distancing that could be tough,” he said. “How do you do social distancing and hay rides? We’ve had the worst spring weather in years, and then put the other stuff on top of it and it’s a challenge. We’re going to have to be creative.”
In Adams County, strawberry growers are faced with the same problems: cold weather and COVID-19 restrictions.
Chad Naylor, owner of Naylor’s Produce in Biglerville, is planning on opening his pick-your-own strawberry fields on May 30. Frost has caused some damage to his 3½-acre crop, but there are still enough plants growing that Naylor is confident the pick-your-own business will be viable.
Still, it’s going to take some work in light of COVID-19.
“We’ll put signs up about social distancing, wear masks, and have hand sanitizer stations for customers,” Naylor said. “There will be an employee reminding customers to maintain social distance, but it’s all common sense. I think we can all get along in the strawberry patch.”
Plus, Naylor said there is a benefit to the mask-wearing requirement.
“It will stop people from eating so many strawberries in the field,” he joked.
While the verdict is still out on the impact of the cold weather, it’s not the first time that Naylor watched nervously as the thermometer plummeted. Three years ago his farm was hit with a bad frost in the spring, he said, although this year the cold weather seems to be lingering longer.
“If we do get some sun and better weather, we’ll have strawberries. There’s still time,” Naylor said.
In Lackawanna County, Dick LaCoe, owner of LaCoe’s Berry Nice Farm, expects the pick-your-own fields to be busy as people are anxious to get a break from the quarantine. LaCoe said his employees will wear masks and plastic guards will be erected where customers weigh and pay for their strawberries.
If the crowd of customers gets too large, LaCoe said he may open every other row for picking and let smaller groups in at a time.
“It will be more work, but we depend on the you-pick business because it’s difficult to find enough help to pre-pick strawberries,” he said.
But first, LaCoe wants to see the weather return to normal at his Clarks Summit farm. Last year was a challenge with wet conditions, but this spring is worse, he said.
“We had a frost for a couple of days and then an inch of snow one night. The plants didn’t blossom yet, but that cold still affects the buds,” LaCoe said. “I think we’ll be all right, but it’s bad enough you have to deal with the virus restrictions, and then bad weather on top of it.”
Beinlich said he won’t assess his crop for damage until after the cold nights subside. In the meantime, he’s been working to minimize the cold weather impacts on the strawberries through overhead watering when the temperature drops below 32 degrees. On May 8, the nighttime temperature was 27 degrees, Beinlich said, and he expects it was significantly colder on the ground.
“If you put enough water on the plants and keep the temperature at 32 degrees, it prevents the strawberry blossoms from freezing,” Beinlich said. “Strawberries are always a bit challenging with weather because it’s a soft fruit on the ground.”
If the weather does return to normal before the strawberries are in season, Deb Colitas of Valley Fruits and Veggies in Bethlehem is bracing for high demand from customers. Colitas said she’s been watching farms in other states where the season is underway, such as Georgia and North Carolina, and those growers are selling out on a daily basis.
If business is indeed strong, Colitas said she and her husband, Chris, are considering adding two more acres to their strawberry fields in the near future.
But first, she said the weather needs to cooperate.
“We had rain on Friday and in the Lehigh Valley it all started freezing. We had full blossoms on our plants, but were able to cover two-thirds of the crop with water,” Colitas said. “I’m optimistic for a full recovery.”
As far as any changes to the pick-your-own business, Colitas said they won’t put out the tent and picnic tables where customers usually gathered after picking.
“We want to make sure everyone feels comfortable and we’ll take precautions,” she said. “Between rising temperatures, wearing masks and plenty of space to social distance in the field, it’s just personal responsibility.”
When it comes to pick-your-own strawberries and the risk of transmission with COVID-19, many of the same guidelines recommended for other businesses can be applied to a farm setting, according to Dr. Luke LaBorde, professor of food science for Penn State Extension.
LaBorde said farms have an advantage in that there’s space for social distancing in fields, and opening up alternating rows for picking strawberries is a good idea.
As far as multiple people touching the same strawberry plants throughout the day, LaBorde said there isn’t much risk for COVID-19 transmission.
“The virus wouldn’t survive very long on a plant, and I would say plants pose a very low risk for transmission,” he said. “For a farm, I would prioritize keeping people spaced apart from each other and sanitizing hard surfaces.”
LaBorde added there’s no evidence that COVID-19 is spread through food, but he advised pick-your-own operations to have plenty of hand sanitizer available for customers.
“If you take a strawberry that has the virus on it and eat it, it’s not spread that way. But it’s a good idea to wash, keep your hands away from your face and be mindful of social distancing just as you would anywhere else,” LaBorde said.