Strawberries are uquituous in the produce aisles and always rank in the top 5 fruit and vegetable items that Americans eat — about 8 pounds per year.  Like many familiar things, though, most people don’t know much about the details.  It is our job at Terra Firma to make sure our CSA subscribers know the details, at least some of them.

As with much of fresh produce farming, growing the right variety of strawberry for the right location is critical.  Most strawberries in California are grown in the coastal region where the weather is cool during almost the entire dry season — very different from our climate here.  We have found that many of the varieties that do well in that region do not perform well in Winters where the winters are colder and the summers very hot.  We have a short growing season, and we need varieties that produce most of their fruit in the Spring rather than over a longer period.

Fifty years ago, farmers had to plant strawberries two years before they wanted to begin harvest.  The plants are “semi-perennial” and don’t begin to fruit until the spring after their second winter in the ground.  The modern strawberry industry shortens the entire process for farmers by growing the plants in a completely different place for a year or so, then digging them up and selling them.  (These farms are called “nurseries” although the plants are grown outdoors.)  This is especially important for growers on the coast, where farmland is very expensive to rent or buy and can’t be tied up for an entire year in a crop that is not producing.

But it’s also particular important for organic farmers. Strawberries compete very poorly with weeds, especially when they are young.  As it is, strawberry fields must be hand-weeded two or even three times between planting and when harvest begins.  If we had to grow the plants for more than a year before harvest, the weeding expense would be entirely unsustainable.

Most of the varieties of strawberries grown in California are patented and owned by the University of California which then licenses them to nurseries to grow “certified” plants to sell to producers.  But independent nurseries are being purchased by larger companies who sell only to large farms (this is a trend among nurseries in general).  Meanwhile, vertically integrated corporations like Driscolls have created their own varieties that can only be grown by farmers who sell them back to Driscolls — again, another trend in fresh produce growing.

Over the years, it has often been a struggle for our small farm to source the plants — called “crowns” — that we need to grow strawberries.  That is partially because the varieties that perform here are “niche” ones that are not as widely planted as the types grown on the coast.  We are constantly trialing new or different varieties in order to spread out the risk of losing one.

We’ve had some unpleasant surprises.  The first was when our long-time nursery was bought by a Spanish competitor — and then shut down completely.  No one ever even called or emailed us to let us know.  I found out about it by Googling the nursery.  Then ensued a scramble to find another nursery.

That unpleasant surprise turned out to be a change for the better, as the new nursery staff was more helpful and supportive.  With their help, we found a great new variety that we decided was our “favorite” and after two years of testing it out, switched over to growing it exclusively in 2023.  Called “Sweet Ann”, it is a tasty, attractive berry that performed very well under our growing conditions.

Most strawberry growers order their plants for the following year just a few weeks after the harvest season starts.  That means you are unable to make any changes based on the current year’s demand or other factors.  But this time last year, when I tried to place our order for the crowns we would plant in September for the 2024 season, I was told the nursery was completely sold out of Sweet Ann.  They initially told me they had no plants of any variety for us, but would “get back” to me if any became available.

Eventually, the nursery staff cobbled together enough plants of three different varieties to fill our order.  But two of those were ones we had never planted before.  As I mentioned earlier, we often “trial” new varieties, but those trials would be just a few hundred plants.  Instead, this year we are doing a large scale trial with 10,000 plants each of two different varieties.

Part of learning how to grow strawberries is knowing how to harvest them just right.  Underripe berries will be overly firm and have less flavor, while overripe berries will break down too quickly.  Each berry variety has a different ripening progression and follows a different timeline, and it can be dramatically influenced by the weather.  Colder temperatures mean slower ripening, hotter ones mean faster.   Our harvest crew has to adjust their standards accordingly.  Growing a single variety of berry makes this entire process much easier; growing three makes it much more challenging.

So this year, we are learning about 2 “new to us” varieties,  and you’ll be learning with us.  “Seascape”  are a mostly smaller berry with a variable shape, while “Ventana” are larger and much smoother and more uniform.  The third variety, “Camarosa” is one that we  grew for many years prior to adopting the Sweet Anns.  They are a large,heart-shaped variety that often has a crease down the middle.  I don’t yet have an opinion about which one tastes best, but it’s also likely that the flavors of each will change subtly over the course of the growing season.

So far, all three varieties are producing nicely, but in our hearts we are still loyal to Sweet Ann.

The good news is that we have  already reserved  our Sweet Ann plants for the 2025 season.  Last year, during the dustup with the nursery staff, they told us that due to a number of factors, they now recommend that growers order their plants fully two years in advance.  In essence, they are asking us to contract for our plants before the nursery plants them.  So we ordered our 2025 plants last year, and this year have already ordered the crowns for the 2026 crop year.  If either of the new varieties  ends up being a standout, we may add it to the lineup.

Overall, we have a nice-looking Strawberry field of happy plants loaded with ripening fruit.  They may not be exactly what we wanted, but given the alternative — no strawberries this year at all — we are pretty happy with the outcome and hope you will be as well.