For local farmers, strawberry fields really are forever.
May marks the season’s peak in Pungo, when fields fill with pickers plunking fat red berries into baskets and buckets.
But for the state’s largest strawberry producers, the season starts in August, when refrigerated rigs arrive bearing hundreds of thousands of “tips” – spindly, pinkie-length stalks with a serrated leaf or two on top and a few hairs of root at the base.
It doesn’t end until June when the last picker exits the rows and it’s time to prep for the August delivery from Prince Edward Island, the Canadian province where most local plants are propagated.
In between September plantings and spring picking, farmers fight deluge and fungus.
When temperatures drop in winter, farmers tuck rows under blankets as big as whole fields and haul out miles of irrigation pipe and begin all-night vigils, knowing that as the water freezes on the plants, the heat that’s released can keep them alive.
Mike Cullipher, a fourth-generation Virginia Beach grower who tends more than 5 acres of certified organic and conventional berries, has seen it all. His advice for pickers: Make sure the berries are red through and through, and start picking at the far end of the rows.
“It seems like everybody goes to the first plant on the first row,” he says, “regardless of what we tell them.”
Cullipher figures he eats about 2 pounds of berries a day, standing right in the rows, checking for ripeness. But he grew up with a pantry stocked with strawberry preserves, made with this century-old recipe that passed to his mother, Becky Malbon Cullipher, from her grandmother to her mother. Truly a Tidewater tradition.
Makes: 4 half-pint jars. Sealed properly, they keep for up to six months.
6 cups strawberries – about 2 quarts. Select firm, ripe ones.
4½ cups sugar
1 tablespoon butter
Wash, drain and cap berries. Leave them whole or chop them, but do not crush (jam is made from crushed fruit; preserves are made from larger pieces).
Combine the fruit and sugar in alternating layers and let stand for 8 to 10 hours or overnight in the refrigerator or a cool place.
Heat the mixture to boiling, stirring gently. Boil rapidly, stirring as needed to prevent sticking.
Add butter to reduce foaming. Cook until syrup is somewhat thick, about 15 or 20 minutes.
Remove from heat. Ladle into hot, clean jars; seal.