Another early berry season for Skagit County farmers WEB

Schuh Farms owner Steve Schuh kneels next to a row of strawberries in a field near his farm stand. Schuh said he’s expecting the berry harvest to come early again this year.

MOUNT VERNON — Schuh Farms owner Steve Schuh knelt in the dirt next to a strawberry plant in one of his u-pick fields last week, brushing his hands through the waxy green leaves.

“These things have come along in a hurry,” Schuh said. “This is all new growth.”

Skagit County residents can expect local berries a little earlier than usual this year after another warm spring.

This is the second consecutive early season. Last year, Schuh said he started picking strawberries on May 15, about a month earlier than normal. This year he said he’ll start picking about May 20.

Last year was one of the earliest berry seasons the Skagit Valley has seen. A warm spring and a dry, hot summer brought a severe drought that cost Skagit County farmers about $30 million in revenue, Washington State University Skagit County Extension Director Don McMoran said.

Red raspberries were the hardest hit berry, suffering $12 million in losses statewide.

Skagit County’s berry industry is worth about $20 million, McMoran said.

Schuh said it was difficult selling strawberries to markets last season because buyers couldn’t believe the berries were already ripe.

“We had a terrible time for the first four or five days getting buyers to figure it out,” he said.

The good news for 2016 is a drought isn’t expected, according to the state Department of Ecology.

The early berry season shouldn’t hurt farmers, McMoran said.

Harley Stoles, owner of Bow Hill Blueberries, said he expects his blueberries to be ready for picking the first week of July. He said they’d normally start picking in mid-July.

“We have four varieties that bloom in stages,” Stoles said. “So an early season compresses the harvest so it’s much shorter.”

That means there is more work to be done in a shorter period of time to get the berries picked. Stoles said last year, he started watering berries earlier due to the drought.

“This year, everything looks good,” he said.

McMoran said the earlier season could be due to global climate change.

“For our area, we are supposed to get wetter winters and hotter, drier summers,” McMoran said.

Sakuma Bros. Farms Vice President of Washington Operations Rich Brim said most of the Sakuma berries will be a week early. The only thing that could hurt the season is a cold snap.

“If there’s a frost that catches the blueberries while they are flowering, we’d have complications,” Brim said. “Right now, things look decent.”

After examining a few strawberry plants last week, Schuh walked between a row of flowering apple trees on his way back to his truck.

He said he had a bit of a scare during an early-morning frost the day before.

“It was gone by 7 a.m.,” he said. “But there was no freeze damage. Everything is coming along.”

— Reporter Aaron Weinberg: 360-416-2145, aweinberg@skagitpublishing.com, Facebook.com/byaaronweinberg

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