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Published: Saturday, 6/7/2008

Strawberries growing ripe for picking at area farms

BY TED FACKLER
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Sisters Erica, 12, and Alycia Robinson, 15, work the counter for their grandfather, Dale Johnston, at his strawberry farm in Swanton. Sisters Erica, 12, and Alycia Robinson, 15, work the counter for their grandfather, Dale Johnston, at his strawberry farm in Swanton.
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As Ohio's strawberry crop ripened recently, farmers and pickers alike are busy eating up the juicy berries at local patches.

Berries are more expensive than last year because of rising fuel and fertilizer costs, said several area farmers, but compared to supermarket prices, the produce is very reasonable.

At Johnston Fruit Farm in Swanton, a quart of strawberries costs $3.25 this season, up from $2.75 last year. If consumers pick their own berries beginning next week, berries sell for $1 to $1.25 a pound.

"The crop looks really great. We're really happy with the quality of the berries," said Martha Johnston, daughter of owner Dale Johnston.

However, because of extremes in the March weather, strawberries ripened a week late this year. The volatility damaged some fields, reducing the vineyard from eight to three acres, Mrs. Johnston said.

Up-and-down weather patterns this spring have affected many Ohio growers, said Shawn Wright, a horticulturist with Ohio State University's center in Piketon. Ohio's strawberry output of 1,600 acres this year could have been higher, he added, but weather didn't play along.

George Thompson, owner of Thompson Farms in Springfield Township, is used to weather issues with his business.

"If there's a cloud in the sky, it deters pickers," he said. And "when the heat is up, they won't show up."

His farm, open seven days a week, offers you-pick-it berries for $1.50 a pound, or packaged fruit the farm's workers have picked for $3.50 to $5.00 a quart. Customer picking starts in 10 days, he said, but packaged fruit is available now.

Prices up 20 percent over last year are attributed to fuel and fertilizer costs and the increase in Ohio's minimum wage to $7 an hour.

Despite a shaky economy, Mr. Thompson said, consumers will pick many strawberries this year, mostly because supermarket fare - sometimes shipped in from Mexico and China - has poorer taste and is unreliable.

At Whitaker's Berry Farm in Ida, Mich., owners Marilyn and Bill Whitaker, Jr., expect to make good profits this year, despite a season which typically ends at the Fourth of July and despite "quite a few farmers losing berries because of the frost that we've had," said Mrs. Whitaker, daughter of former Rauch's Berry Farm owners George and Norma Rauch. Their packaged berries cost $3 a quart, while you-pick-it fruit is $1.25 a pound, up 25 cents over last year.

Other area farms offering you-pick-it strawberries include Polter's Berry Farm in Fremont, starting late next week, and Hoen's Greenhouse Inc. in Springfield Township.

Contact Ted Fackler at:

tfackler@theblade.com

or 419-724-6199.



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