From HamptonRoads.com, Lorraine Eaton, The Virginian-Pilot, 1 May 2011.
On a midsummer day, when the blacktop shimmered like water, an 18-wheeler from Canada threaded its way through a tangle of roads in rural Virginia Beach. It groaned to a stop in front of Henley’s Farm Market.
The truck came from the northern tip of Prince Edward Island, a Canadian maritime province 1,208 miles north of the Pungo stoplight.
Inside the refrigerated rig were hundreds of thousands of strawberry “tips,” each just a leaf topping a spindly stem or two with a slight fringe of root at the end.
On that baking August day, Winston “Wink” Henley, 70, met the driver at the family’s farm stand, then got into his own truck and led the driver deeper into the countryside. He turned right onto a road with no stripe and then left into the dusty driveway of the farm that has been in his family for three generations.
There, he and his crew of migrant workers off-loaded 160 boxes marked “Sweet Charlie” or “Chandler,” each containing 1,000 plants, and altogether costing nearly $20,000.
The rig raised puffs of dust as it made its way back down the driveway, and for Wink Henley, the most veteran of the Virginia Beach strawberry farmers, the growing season had begun.
The strawberry season stretches out longer than any other crop that Henley grows. It starts with the August delivery and doesn’t end until the following June, when the last pickers have left the fields.
In between, those months are rife with guesswork and deadlines and hazards.
Six weeks after his plants arrived, Henley stood at the edge of one of his strawberry fields, his craggy skin and blue eyes shielded from the sun’s glare by a worn Farm Credit ball cap.
“We have a problemo,” he said.
Planting is behind schedule. The field has been tilled into rigid rows of squared-off mounds. Those have been sealed with thin, black plastic sheeting, a farming method called “plasticulture” that has dramatically increased crop yields.
The plastic holds in moisture and keeps down the weeds. For extra measure, the earth underneath had been injected a few weeks prior with a gas to kill insects, weed seed and fungus that were likely thriving, unseen in the soil.
The landscape of alternating brown and black stripes looked as tidy as a pressed polo shirt.
At the far end of the field, a John Deere driven by a worker wearing a cowboy hat steadily made its way toward Henley. The tractor dragged a V-shaped rig. Seats on each end hovered just above the earth, and workers sat in the seats.
In front of the men, slanted shelves held flats of strawberry plants, which Henley had moved to a wooded corner of the farm and nurtured to quadruple their size since their delivery.
As the tractor rolled up the row, a barbed wheel pierced the plastic and the ground below. A tank mounted on the tractor released a splash of water and fertilizer. Then, the men on the seats rhythmically jammed a plant into each hole as they passed by – plug, plug, plug – never missing a beat.
Virginia Beach is the largest producer of strawberries in the state, and the Henley family, with 12 acres under cultivation, is the city’s largest grower.
Using all he had learned in nearly 50 years of raising strawberries – watching weather patterns, consulting experts, trusting his own intuition – Henley had picked Sept. 25 as the best day to finish planting. That would allow the plugs to get plenty established before the winter cold.
Every hour counted, but they were behind, and on the day before one of his crew had cut his finger so severely that it required five stitches.
“That shot that day,” Henley said.
For farmers, time is money, and Henley had already made a significant investment of both. By the time the berries ripen, strawberry farmers have plowed an average of $12,500 into each acre, not including the labor to harvest. Henley expected an average yield of about 12,000 pounds of harvested berries per acre. He gets about $4 a quart – which is about 1.5 pounds – for his crop, though the price is lower for the pick-it-yourself berries.
Planting season coincides with the height of hurricane season, and Henley has seen his share of storms wreck the landscape with torrential rains and wind.
Henley and his crew needed about a week of dry days to get the crop in. If it rained hard, a tractor would carve gouges in the field that would never go away and would pose a hazard to the pick-your-own crowd come the next spring.
Half the crop had been planted when, on Sept. 29, remnants of Tropical Storm Nicole dumped more than a foot of rain.
The last plant went in on Oct. 9, a two-week delay that Henley expected to affect his harvest.
“Early is good; late is going to be iffy,” he said. The berries that went in late, “he’ll be big and pretty, but he won’t have the yield.”
“That’s going to be a problem.”
“All my life I’ve been told that one extreme follows another,” Henley said one February afternoon, as he surveyed his crop from inside his SUV. The dash bore a crust of dust. A sheaf of worn papers jammed between the driver’s and passenger’s seats serves as his office.
To local farmers, last summer’s record-breaking heat had hinted at a colder-than-normal winter. So far, the adage proved true, with a record snowfall at Christmas and overnight temperatures barely above freezing most days.
Henley, like most farmers in Virginia Beach, plants two kinds of strawberries. Sweet Charlie is an early blooming variety patented by the University of Florida in 1994. Chandler, which come to fruition a week or so later, was developed in California.
Midwinter weeks are when strawberry farmers watch and wait, benefit analysis of costs clacking in their heads.
It’s when the Henleys begin the annual process of rehiring seasonal workers, an expensive, maddening process.
Barbara, Henley’s wife of 50 years and a longtime Virginia Beach councilwoman, handles much of the farm’s paperwork. The Henleys advertise the farm’s four seasonal positions in at least four states, a U.S. Dept. of Labor requirement designed to protect American jobs.
Wink Henley considers himself a proud American, but he prefers to rehire his crew from Mexico because the workers know the farm and the way he runs it and because of their fierce work ethic. But last year, to comply with regulations, he hired three men from the few Americans who sought the jobs.
One quit immediately. Another quit after one day and two hours. The last was found to be a convicted sex offender, and Henley was allowed to let him go immediately.
Untold headaches and $2,500 later, he rehired his old crew. Now, the process was beginning anew.
In the fields, Henley surveyed his Chandlers and Sweet Charlies from his truck – spidery, green tufts of scalloped leaves splayed out on black plastic.
As long as the temperature remained above zero, he had few worries. That’s because the plants were dormant. The fragile buds that would produce the berries had not been set, and only the most severe of winter weather would harm the plants themselves.
“And that happens, what? Every 200 years,” Henley said.
So he watched and waited. If a patch looked off, Henley might pinch off a leaf and send it to agriculture experts at Virginia Tech for an analysis of 18 elements – boron, nickel, zinc, chloride – or he might amend the soil, a practice common among local growers.
In other ways, Henley does things differently.
Some farmers “sanitize” their fields, picking brown leaves off the plants and weeding by hand. Henley used to, but he no longer sees the benefit of either.
Some farmers use a fungicide spray to control gray mold that forms on the berries if the spring is a wet one. An application can run about $100, and Henley rarely applies one. The way he figures, the berries won’t get sold if it rains, gray mold or no, because the pick-your-own crowd won’t come.
“So do you spend $100 to make 10?” he said. “Or do you spend 10 to save $100.”
Next to a deadly freeze, the most serious winter threat is a constant one: deer. Henley’s farm backs up to the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, and when the forest there is bare, the animals wander into his fields to dine on the strawberry crop.
The evidence is everywhere. In one muddy patch, a gaggle of hoof prints looks as though the deer had been dancing here. The plastic on nearby rows is slashed by pointed, cloven hooves, and some stretches of plants have been grazed down to the quick.
Henley tries to protect his investment by spraying deer and rabbit repellent and erecting lengths of electric fences that look like little more than strings between spindly posts, but the deer are smart.
Henley stays on their trail throughout the winter in a nightly ritual of cat-and-mouse.
Most every night, he climbs into his truck and rides into the fields. He points his headlights into the wooded perimeter and turns his vehicle in a slow arc, searching for a glint of an eye that will have him tearing across the dirt, high beams slicing the blackness, deer skittering back into the refuge.
In early March, when the understory of the wildlife refuge greens up, the deer return to the woods and yet another danger takes precedence: an early spring frost.
For years and years, when the weatherman warned of frost on early spring nights, Henley stepped onto his front porch, lit a cigarette, and watched which way the smoke wafted.
If it blew from the east and into his face, he went back to bed. If it came from the west, he went to work.
These days, Henley is down to a few cigarettes a day and is more apt to grab a handful of grass and toss it into the wind, but his rule is the same.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen it fail,” he said.
By late spring, Virginia Beach’s strawberry fields were a delight of bushy green plants with white, quarter-sized blooms and clusters of hard, white and bright-green berries.
Henley’s son, Bruce Henley, had been experimenting in one field by growing the berries under an acre of cloth that looked like a gigantic dryer sheet. In late March, some of those berries blushed red, only days away from harvest.
Tom Baker, another Beach strawberry farmer, sent a dispatch to his customers predicting his you-pick-’em fields would open the last weekend of April or the first of May.
A spring frost won’t kill the plants, but it could doom that first flush of berries, which account for as much as 30 percent of a farmer’s yield.
So on March 25, when the weatherman said frost, anxiety gripped local strawberry growers.
Down the road from Henley, Mike Cullipher had consulted a web of weather experts, including his $50-a-month, custom service that uses GPS coordinates to report real-time, canopy-level temperatures right in his fields.
He listened to local weather reports and considered the four or five daily dispatches from Barclay Poling, a recently retired North Carolina State University professor and respected strawberry expert.
And at 5:30 p.m., he looked at his father, Louis Cullipher and said, “Dad, it’s going to get cold.”
The tipping point for strawberry farmers is 30 degrees. That kind of cold will kill the blooms. Two degrees colder ruins the berries. At 20 degrees, even the blooms at the center of the plant won’t survive.
With other crops, farmers can replant and still make a profit. With strawberries, they get one shot.
That day, all across the area, farmers debated whether to neglect other crops and instead haul out row covers – like the ones that Bruce Henley used on those early berries – and erect pipes for overhead irrigation.
Oddly, farmers water berries on bitterly cold nights to create a protective cloak of ice. They know that, as water freezes, heat is released, which keeps the plants above the freezing point.
About 6 p.m., Mike Cullipher stuck a probe into the mound in the center of the white blooms that eventually would grow into a ripened fruit. The digital readout said 40 degrees. Twenty minutes later, it had dropped to 36.
Cullipher felt like throwing up.
The temperature plunged from 40 degrees to 30 degrees in two hours, a rare and ominous situation. For most farmers, it meant an all-nighter.
From dusk until well past dawn, Virginia Beach strawberry fields emitted a constant ch-ch-ch as water sprinklers wet the crops. Farmers toiled in the cold, walking rows looking for kinks in their lines or clogged sprinkler heads that could mean losing the berries in that circle of irrigation.
The next day, Cullipher eased into a field, looking for the telltale blackness that signals death of the berries and buds. He instead found bright yellow centers on his berries; the plants had survived.
Henley opted against irrigation on that first night, and lost about 2 percent of his crop. The next day’s report called for even colder temperatures, he and his crew laid 2 linear miles of irrigation pipe in his fields.
Frost warnings persisted for most of the next week, and the strawberry farmers continued the ritual.
At one point, an exhausted Cullipher said a prayer. “Lord, we’ve done all we can do. What happens now is your will. It is your will, and we will live with it.”
Nine months after the tractor-trailer from Canada pulled up to Wink Henley’s farm, local fields are flush with berries.
Farmers nurtured the crop, protecting them from deer and disease and the wildest weather in decades, including last week’s threat of hail, which could have devastated crops in a matter of minutes. But even after all that, yet another danger looms: that the public won’t come to pick the berries.
And yet, May is perhaps the most critical month and more danger looms: What if the public doesn’t come to get the berries?
Most local strawberry fields are pick-your-own operations, supplemented with farm-stand sales. If it rains, few if any pickers will venture into the fields or drive to the countryside stands. The berries will rot, all those months of work and worry shot.
“Fifteen years ago, it rained every day in May,” Henley recalled. “I said, ‘I hope I live a long time and never see another drop of rain in May.’
“Last year, there was no rain in May, and we couldn’t plant corn.”
Lorraine Eaton, (757)446-2697, firstname.lastname@example.org