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May, 2010

The Long of it Long Stem Strawberries

By Dennis Linden

Ever wonder where those big, beautiful long stem strawberries come from that grace every Mother’s Day Brunch menu or why they are not readily available at retail outlets throughout the strawberry season

Long Stem Strawberries

These specially packed berries represent both an opportunity and a field management challenge for the professional strawberry grower. To understand the conundrum that comes with supplying the marketplace with this elegant fruit, a brief field-level view of the dynamics to the harvest of a commercial strawberry crop is necessary. As John Lennon aptly described, to the casual passerby a strawberry field certainly does look like it goes on forever. Actually, a strawberry field must be completely replanted each year with seedlings purchased from a commercial nursery. So there is no forever to this crop as the plants must be plowed under at the end of each season to make way for the next planting, Also dispelling Mr. Lennon’s lyrics, strawberries are grown within specific parameters: two rows of plants planted 12 inches apart in a raised bed that is 40 inches across and 300 feet long with 14-inch furrows between each bed. These defined dimensions are designed to facilitate the harvest procedures, which will be profiled shortly.

Strawberry plants are a part of the rose family and have three main parts: a root, crown and leaves. Basically, berry stalks (stamens) continually grow out of the crown of the plant in groups of three. Each crown produces many sets of berries clusters throughout a season, so each plant must be picked several times. Strawberries do not ripen off the plant, which makes harvesting this fruit at the exact peak of taste and condition extremely critical. Ripeness is indicated by the amount of red coloring each berry has that starts at the tip and eventually spreads over the broad “shoulders” of each berry. To manage the harvest of large strawberry acreage, a grower divides his field into manageable plots based on the size of his work crew and what that workforce can pick on average in one full day of work. Ideally, a picking crew returns to each plot every three or four days to pick the berries that have ripened since the plot was last harvested. If this schedule is not strictly adhered to and the harvest falls behind, the berries will over-ripen on the plant, rendering them unsuitable for market.

Since all strawberries must be picked by hand, the process requires being speedy as well as careful not to bruise or damage the fruit. Each field worker is assigned one side of a bed to harvest; he or she starts at one end and picks fruit that is all about the same size and color into a tray containing 12 baskets. It’s a back-bending task, as those 14-inch furrows do not allow enough room for crawling along next to the beds. When a tray of berries is filled, it weighs 10-11 lbs. and must be walked carefully back to a collection truck stationed at the end of the bed. At the truck, each tray is inspected for overall quality before being accepted; a punch card system is used to keep track of a picker’s productivity. The worker then grabs an empty tray and basket set-up, returning to where the last tray was filled to begin the process all over again. The average pay is $1.50 per tray; an experienced picker aims at earning $100 per day.

While the same hand-and-foot harvest system is used in picking long stem strawberries, the process is further complicated by having to fill each basket in the tray with only extra large fruit in such a manner that the long stems are not damaged or do not puncture other berries. Also, the fruit that shows across the top of each tray must be placed-packed, meaning that all the stems are placed in the tray facing in the same direction so that the trays stack easily without crushing any of the delicate stems. It takes a practiced eye to produce a tray of long stemmed fruit that is uniform in size, color, shape and ripeness; plus, it must be done in a reasonable amount of time that produces enough volume to make it profitable. Instantaneous judgment is required--remember, once picked, this fruit cannot be put back on the plant nor is there room, or hands, to carry a second tray for rejects. So, by definition, a grower must use the most experienced pickers for this specialized harvest in order to insure the kind of above-average quality standards the long stem strawberry marketplace demands. The fruit must be, literally, the cream of the crop. Besides the obvious loss of production harvesting stemmed berries represents to the grower, the picker doing this special job loses the same volume in wage potential, which must also be offset by a guaranteed hourly wage on top of a per tray premium rate. Amongst farm workers, it is an honor to be chosen to pick long stems. In spite of the hassle, for the grower there is nothing that shows off the results of his season-long toils more than an elegant tray of long stem strawberries. To him, no matter the bottom line profitability, the tray not only looks like a bouquet of long stem roses, but is prettier!

Since both Easter and Mother’s Day come at the peak harvest periods for first the southern and then northern growing districts of California, the sacrifice in volume that comes with picking long stems must be made up in the premium prices that these special packs command. With so many regular berries flooding retail markets in April and May, the demand for stems is primarily supported by the foodservice industry and private restaurant purveyors for just a few weeks leading up to each holiday. So it is hoped that this article will enhance your appreciation of this dazzling fruit this month as you arrive at the long stem strawberry station in that Mother’s Day Buffet Brunch line. While it would be inappropriate to hold up service to stop and applaud what appears to be just a big bowl of fruit to others, consider whistling the first few bars of Mr. Lennon’s tune as you plate a few of these beauties for yourself. After all, the image of a field of long stem strawberries forever might have been an edit that John would have accepted!