Ripe for the picking: Mild weather brings early harvest at area farms

gmartin@islandpacket.comApril 1, 2012 

There are a few green, unripe strawberries pushing through the black tarp covering each row of Davey Dempsey's 57,000 strawberry plants.

But not many.

Unseasonably warm temperatures have brought an early harvest to berry farms like Dempsey Farms on St. Helena Island. With the weather comes a surge of customers, buckets in hand.

"My phone's been ringing off the hook the past couple days with people asking, 'Are you open yet?' " Dempsey says. "I tell them we've been open for two weeks!"

He says that's two weeks earlier than most years. His 25 years of experience have taught him to expect his berries to first ripen in early April. He also knows the mild weather isn't necessarily good for business.

"Strawberries like a little cooler weather than we've had, and a little drier," Dempsey says.

"See that?" he asks, pointing to some dark fuzz on one berry. "That's rot. Too much moisture caused that."

Still, he's enjoying a steady stream of customers and stayed open past his customary 6 p.m. closing time Friday to accommodate a few families lingering in the fields.

Almost all spring and early-summer crops are on a hastened schedule, according to Ansley Rast, marketing coordinator with the S.C. Department of Agriculture.

Strawberries are out well before Easter, and peaches should ripen long before their traditional Memorial Day start.

Some farmers have already started planting summer corn.

In general, the heat caused few problems for farms. Some wheat farmers in the state had to plow under and replant because their crops were maturing too soon.

And some fruit farmers, such as Dempsey, worried their peaches and strawberries might not have received the cold nightly temperatures that generate ideal sweetness.

But based on the smiles of children leaving his farm, and the conspicuous red stains around them, he hasn't fielded many complaints.

The weather hasn't brought good news to all local farms.

Chuck Merrick at Three Sisters Farm in Bluffton said the heat decimated his spring daffodil crop.

"We're down 80 percent from last year," he said. "They just didn't blossom. The same thing happened about 10 years ago, but not since."

Bee Strickland at Barefoot Farms, just down the Sea Island Parkway from Dempsey Farms, said her strawberries are on schedule, but her subsequent vegetable crop might arrive early.

"We've got lettuce, collards, turnips and squash yet to come," she said. "It's just hard to predict what'll happen this year."

Dempsey is used to such uncertainty. Sitting on a bench watching the day's last families approach his tent, he turns philosophical.

"You can't control the weather in this business," he says. "You can just do the best you can with what you got."

Joey Holleman of The (Columbia) State contributed to this report. Follow reporter Grant Martin at twitter.com/LowCoBiz.

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PHOTO: Strawberry gathering on St. Helena Island, March 21, 2012

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