GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Sahl’s Father Son Farm is celebrating its 150th anniversary this season.
But it’s never too late for a new crop.
Jeremy Sahl is the sixth generation of his family to farm, and he can’t recall ever growing strawberries.
But that changed this year, and some of the 15,000 new strawberry plants are now ripe for the picking.
Strawberry season is one of the shortest — but sweetest — in South Jersey, lasting only a month. A warm winter and favorable weather so far this spring started the season a little early, with pick-your-own strawberry farms already open for business and predicting a juicy and bountiful harvest.
Sitting on 100 acres, Sahl’s Father Son Farm is better known for its corn, pumpkins and popular corn maze each fall.
But Sahl wanted to try something new and tested his hand with strawberries, despite the statewide trend of declining strawberry production over the past few decades.
“Every crop is its own science,” Sahl explained, which is why he enlisted the help of neighboring Galloway farmers such as Bob Fenton from Surf and Turf Farm and Art Brown from B&B Farms.
“Their experience in strawberries really helped us get our crop established, and the inaugural crop is looking great,” Sahl said.
From the rookie to the veteran grower, Sparacio Farms in Deerfield Township has been growing strawberries on three acres of that Cumberland County farm for more than five decades. Owner Joe Sparacio really likes the look of the ready-to-be-picked fruits.
“The strawberries look beautiful this year, and the weather has been very cooperative this spring, which is important,” he said.
Sparacio Farms opened to pick-your-own customers last Tuesday, earlier than last year. Sparacio says the warm winter helped, but the cool March kept the plants from blooming too early.
The National Weather Service said that last February was the warmest on record in South Jersey. Records date back to 1874.
April was also unseasonably warm, and Sahl said it was some late April warmth that led to the early harvest.
“People are used to picking strawberries later in May into early June, but we were ready in early May this year,” Sahl explained.
Sahl may have an added an acre to the state’s total strawberry acreage. But despite their popularity locally, strawberries are not a big crop statewide.
Jeff Wolfe, of the New Jersey Department of Agriculture, said strawberries are not a top 10 crop in terms of production, value or acreage for the state.
Wolfe estimates strawberries occupy only 200 to 250 acres of farmland throughout New Jersey.
Compare that with the vast New Jersey blueberry crop. NJDA statistics show 9,100 acres of New Jersey farmland grew blueberries in 2015. The value of the 2015 statewide blueberry crop was $66.15 million.
That’s 30 times more than the estimated $2 million the state strawberry harvest produces annually, Wolfe said.
Sahl’s Father and Son Farm planted one acre of strawberries last year, and is about to add a second acre in a few weeks that will be ready for picking next spring.
Sahl tried four strawberry varieties with his first planting: Galletta, Honeoye, Jewel and Mayflower.
On Sparacio Farms, Chandler is the top strawberry variety. Both farmers also have grown the newer Rutgers Scarlet strawberry, which was all the craze in 2016 when it first became widely available.
“They were popular last year, but so far this season, there haven’t been too many inquiries about them,” Sparacio said.
Both Sahl and Sparacio hope the nights stay cool and it doesn’t get too hot too quickly later this month. Strawberry season usually lasts about a month, but can vary anywhere from two to six weeks depending on the weather.
That means after Memorial Day, the short but sweet season already will be winding down. So get them while the getting is juicy — and if the Sahls have any left.
“We’re loving the new crop, so much so that my family and I can’t pick them without each eating a quart and a half ourselves,” Sahl joked.