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Berry Time Begins

By the start of April we have a pretty clear idea of how the spring is going to turn out in the world of commercial agriculture.

This year, late March brought some much needed rain (and snow) all along the West Coast, bringing to an end the mild, dry winter.

Over on the other side of the US, Florida is settling in to warmer springtime temperatures that signal the annual snowbird migration back to their northern homes. Moderate-weather agriculture also starts its slow march north as well.

For most summer fruits the early months of the year are growing seasons; trees bloom and leaf, vines put out new canes, and the first tiny green fruits just start to emerge. For strawberries and blueberries though, spring marks the start of the domestic harvest season; the beginning of the long-traveled path that takes us through the supply peaks in June and July, to the seasonal decline in September and October.

Springtime is harvest time for berries.

It’s pretty easy to miss the start (and end) of the domestic berry season. Every year more and more berries are harvested in areas with milder winter climates, like Mexico and South America, to fill the wintertime demand for berries here in the US. For strawberries, the domestic season starts first in Florida and is usually finished there by mid-March.

Florida production is replaced, weather permitting, by Southern California farms, followed by central and northern coastal growing areas. Domestic blueberry production starts in Florida as well, but later spring and summer harvests of this native American berry occurs all over the US. A good way to follow the seasonal progression of berries in the store is by their container size.

At the start of the season, when supplies are tightest, the berries are sold in small containers (typically 6 ounces for blue, sometimes 8.8 ounces for strawberries).

As the season progresses the container sizes increase to include 2-pound and even 4-pound units. I have my own way of keeping track of the progression of the berry season. I call it the “Delilah Percentage Method.”

This purely unscientific method measures the percentage of berries remaining in a container by the time my daughter and I return home from a grocery shopping.

If there are no berries left (as is often the case) I know it’s early in the season.

When selecting berries at the market it’s very important to carefully examine the container from all sides. Berries are extremely fragile and you should avoid any container with bruised fruit. It’s best to store berries in your refrigerator but not in the container they were shipped in. I remove mine and place them in a shallow bowl.

You should wash your berries right before you eat them, as excessive moisture can also speed decay. If you can, you should also remove strawberries from your fridge an hour or so before you eat them; serving strawberries at room temperature really brings out their fragrance. Berries are a huge part of my world, both at work and at home, since I am fortunate enough to live where I can grow almost any variety.

They are important not only because my family loves them but also because they’re such a wonderfully versatile fruit; whether eating out of hand or with just about any dish. To me, they also embody freshness and renewal, which is a perfect complement to spring.

What's your favorite way to eat berries? Let me know in the comments.