One in a series of columns co-written by Tony and Karen Russo, a father-daughter team and former owners of Russo’s in Watertown.
If you drive anywhere near a farm in the next few weeks, you might notice hand-painted signs along the road, displaying the letters PYO. Short for “Pick Your Own,” these signs indicate that our locally grown strawberries are ripe and ready for amateur pickers to descend upon their rows.
So why is this news, you might ask? You can find strawberries all of the time in your grocery store. In fact, we carried them year-round at Russo’s, too.
However, those year-round strawberries come from Florida, the Carolinas, California, Mexico, and even Peru. These strawberries are different. These local strawberries, some of the best in our country, are only available for a few short weeks in June and, if we’re lucky, early July. These strawberries are ethereal and, we believe, should be eaten immediately (or within a day of picking).
At Verrill Farm, a family farm in Concord, the season’s first strawberry crop was picked last week. The variety, Wendy, is a favorite because of its excellent flavor, according to Steve Verrill who has grown strawberries for more than 50 years.
“With everything we plant, the flavor is the primary selection criteria,” said Verrill.
As he walked us through his 5 acres of strawberry fields, Verrill, 87, described how his wife learned to drive a tractor while he walked behind it planting the berries. It was only by chance that his dairy-turned-vegetable farm grows the fruit. His business partner’s brother grew strawberries and he suggested that Steve try it, too. So he did.
Now, Verrill Farm has such an enthusiastic following that it hosts a Strawberry Festival each spring and folks return year after year to pick their own berries. Verrill Farm sells the berries at its farm stand, too, but the real enthusiasm comes when customers pick their own.
These strawberries are picked at the height of their maturity. In order to enjoy their splendor, they should not be stored in the refrigerator. To truly appreciate them, eat them within a day of being harvested.
Over the past 10 years, we noticed that our customers became more aware of the significance of local strawberries. For decades prior, Massachusetts’ berries were overlooked because California’s strawberries, which account for about 90 percent of the American market, peak in April, May, and June. That means they flooded the market at a time when our local berries were approaching perfection in their short season.
To make it more challenging for local growers, the capricious Massachusetts climate does not offer easy growing conditions for the delicate fruit.
Joe Czajkowski, 65, is a grower based in Hadley. A third-generation farmer, Czajkowski has been farming since he was a child and learning alongside his grandfather. He recalls picking asparagus before heading to school.
He said that one of the more challenging parts of strawberry farming is what he calls “frost control,” which is when he wakes up at midnight several times a week to tend to the fields to help prevent the crops from freezing.
Unfortunately, this past February’s record-breaking freeze and 40 mph winds, plus a recent record-breaking springtime freeze destroyed about 70 percent of his strawberry crop. He said that every farmer he knows was injured by this year’s weather, but one of his own fields was particularly exposed to wind and suffered a tremendous loss.
Joe Czajkowski Farm will still offer seven strawberry varieties for Pick Your Own, including the Cabot variety, a flavorful berry that’s “almost the size of a little apple,” he said. This is his farm’s 40th season with PYO for strawberries.
Nothing on the market tastes as good as a local strawberry, he said.
“It is sweet with just a little bit of hardness to it,” said Czajkowski. “It tastes like freshness. This berry did not travel 3,000 miles from California or 9,000 miles from Peru. It travels the length of your arm.”
Some of our favorite strawberries are grown by the husband and wife team of Mark and Ellen Parlee of Parlee Farms in Tyngsborough. Both were engineers when they met. After they were married, Mark told Ellen that he wanted to be a farmer. Now, Mark farms and Ellen runs the business.
When Mark was 12 years old, he learned to grow strawberries from his uncle. More than 50 years later, his strawberries are some of the best we’ve tasted.
Parlee Farm’s PYO strawberry season usually runs from mid-June through July 4. In addition to its spring crop, Parlee Farm offers a unique second strawberry crop, which runs from August to October (although it is not PYO).
We recently spoke with Ellen about growing the finicky strawberry in our fluctuating climate.
“They are pretty sensitive to weather changes,” she said. “They like 70-degree temperatures, they don’t like a lot of rain, they don’t like to be pelted with rain, they don’t like the cold. They are one of our fussiest plants to grow.”
But it’s worth the effort, said Parlee.
“They are very popular and people love them,” she said. “The flavor far exceeds anything you can purchase in a store.”
Karen and Tony Russo can be reached at email@example.com.