Strawberry season is short and sweet in South Jersey.
But this year could be one of the sweetest.
A new variety of strawberry — more than a decade in development — makes a much anticipated debut at pick-your-own farms and farmstands this spring.
Farmers are hoping the new, more flavorful Rutgers Scarlet strawberry juices up New Jersey’s long declining strawberry harvest. The berries will be soon ready to pick in a short season that can run from two to six weeks.
“We wanted to develop a better-tasting strawberry, so we concentrated on flavor above all else,” said Bill Hlubik, professor and agricultural agent with Rutgers Cooperative Extension, part of the team of scientists that spent the last 10 to 12 years developing the new variety of strawberry.
“It’s a perfect balance of sugar and acid with a great bouquet, sweet and juicy, and red all the way through,” Hlubik says.
He hopes the Rutgers Scarlet strawberry will be a variety that is more suited to New Jersey’s fickle weather, will develop a following because of its rich flavor and will encourage people to seek it out and buy local.
Butch Sparacio, manager of Sparacio Farms in Deerfield Township, has been growing strawberries on three acres of his Cumberland County farm for over 50 years. This is his first year growing the Rutgers Scarlet.
“There’s a lot of talk about its exceptional flavor, and we can’t wait to find out how good it is,” Sparacio said.
Sparacio started harvesting some of his strawberries last week. Once the current cool and wet weather pattern breaks, he says, the pick-your-own season might begin as soon as Mother’s Day.
Sparacio says strawberry season ranges anywhere from two-and-a-half to six weeks long, depending on the weather. Sparacio is optimistic about the upcoming harvest.
“We did maintain a small loss from that cold April night, but this year’s strawberries look excellent,” Sparacio says.
The National Weather Service says temperatures dropped as low as 20 degrees in the New Jersey pinelands on the morning of April 6.
The state Department of Agriculture reported only isolated pockets throughout the state of weather related damage to this year’s strawberry crop.
Blueberry farmers also predict only minimal losses due to the early spring cold. Denny Doyle of the Atlantic Blueberry Company predicted a 1 percent to 7 percent loss.
According to Joe Atchinson of the Department of Agriculture, the window for strawberries is small, but, he says, “People wait all year for the ripe juicy fruit.”
Atchison adds that most Jersey strawberries go directly to farm stands or are picked by consumers and are meant to be eaten fresh.
Despite their popularity, New Jersey strawberry production has been dwindling for decades. Sparacio says “the cost to grow them is pretty expensive, plus you have to pray for cooperative weather given the short season.”
Atchison estimates that only about 200 to 250 acres of strawberries are currently planted statewide.
Contrast that with the New Jersey blueberry crop. Statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that 8,800 acres of land were dedicated to blueberries in New Jersey in 2014. The value of the New Jersey blueberry crop was $79.5 million that year.
Atchison estimates that New Jersey strawberries bring in about $2 million annually.
He says the USDA does not keep official statistics on the New Jersey strawberry harvest, since production fell below 300 acres in 2007.
But Hlubik and his team at Rutgers are hoping their work reverses that trend.
“The new variety of strawberry gives farmers something fresh, new, and sweet to offer customers early in the season,” Hlubik explains. And he says the Rutgers Scarlet won’t be the only thing new in strawberries.
“We’re hoping to release one or two more new varieties over the next year or so,” Hlubik says.
Back on the farm, Sparacio awaits the verdict on this year’s new strawberry, and hopes for cool, dry weather for harvesting. Knowing that widespread 80- to 90-degree heat will abruptly end the short season, Sparacio hopes the only thing hot this spring will be sales.