North Carolina strawberry field trips offer timely benefits
ST. PAULS, N.C. (AP) — Jessica Lee got into the produce stand business back in the 1980s when her grandmother started selling sweet corn from her carport on Gillis Hill Road.
That venture grew into its own spot in 2004 and with Lee’s tending, it’s taken root as a produce stand sprouted from a ninth-generation family farm.
This time of year, Gillis Hill Road Produce and other local farms are family destinations for fresh-from-the-field strawberries.
“We can get out of the house, get some fresh air,” said Holly Griner as she bent to pluck berries with her husband and daughter in the three-acre field last week. “And I love strawberries.”
The pick-your-own season offers several timely benefits.
Gillis Hill and other local produce stands from Riddle Farms and Canady Farms have plenty of room for social distancing in their sprawling strawberry fields.
Hand sanitizer is available at the stands and customers are asked to wash their hands before picking.
“A lot of people have asked about what we’re doing about COVID and we’re following CDC guidelines,” says Dana Ackerman, who runs the stand for Riddle Farms Produce at 1822 Chicken Foot Road.
“People have been very thankful that this is available for them to get out, especially at this time,” says James Gillis, who farms the Gillis HIll Road Produce field.
“There’s a lot of space out here and you don’t have to worry about social distancing out in the field because you’re on acres. People have to use their own sense when they’re in the field but most of them are courteous enough to do what’s right.”
This is peak production time for the bright red berries and they never tasted better than when they’re fresh-picked.
“They look for the reddest one they can find,” Milton Flores says of his children, Jaxon, 6, and Olivia, 7.
“After we wash them, we’ll cut them up and prepare them in a bowl so that wherever they’re ready to eat, they can just grab ’em and go.”
Peak strawberry season is a time of shortcakes and whipped cream, pies and preserves, fresh French toast toppings and pink milkshakes.
The payoff is aplenty. But the fun begins long before you savor that delicious flavor.
Berry picking has become a family must this time of year, and not even a pandemic can stop it.
“We do this every year,” Flores says. “Either here or at another farm.
“The kids enjoy it. It gets them out.
“They love not being in the house.”
The warm sun, the green plants and the bright strawberries tucked away like Easter eggs give one a feeling of health and wellbeing in a time when such can be hard to come by.
“They’re super excited,” Kelly Hunter said of her 8- and 10-year-old tagalongs, who took spring-sized grins into the field at Riddle Farms Produce.
FINDING THE BEST BERRIES
Flores and his family sought strawberries from the far end of of the Gillis Hill Road Produce field like true pick-your-own veterans.
“I always tell people to go to the back of the field because a lot of people only pick up front and never make it to the back,” Lee says. “That’s where the nicer berries are.
“Look for the red ones, turn it over and make sure it’s completely red. It is a fresh fruit, it’s vine-ripened so it may be green on the other side.”
Gillis says these strawberries were planted in October, “and we babysit them all winter. Sing to ’em and everything.”
The plants started to yield ripe fruit more than four weeks ago and blooms are still coming.
“The white flowers are future strawberries and you’ll see little baby green strawberries,” Lee says. “It takes about 30 days for a strawberry to go from a flower to a ripe, red strawberry.”
The season usually runs through May, and then most stands will turn to summer staples such as watermelon, cantaloupe, tomatoes, peppers, squash, corn, cucumbers and more.
Lee is already selling those fruits from Florida, along with various garden plants, local honey, firewood, pine straw and more.
Riddle Farms Produce and Canady Farms have added homegrown cabbage and new potatoes to their strawberry selection.
William Canady’s family has worked the land on Hope Mills’ Sim Canady Road since the 1970s. This year, the farm is opening its fields on Saturdays only for pick-your-own strawberries due to the pandemic. Those hours could change in the future, so Canady recommends calling ahead to check on hours and availability.
The Canady produce stand near the corner of Chicken Foot and School Road is open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays with pre-picked strawberries, cabbage and potatoes.
Canady hopes to be stocked with summer produce by early June. “Everything seems a little early this year,” he says.
Gillis Hill Road Produce and Riddle Farms Produce are open daily, unless it’s raining. All three of those stands have seen a good turnout of customers so far.
“It’s been steady,” Ackerman says. “I guess with everybody out of work or trying to get out of the house.”
The Riddle stand operates by a sign advertising McNeill Farms, so don’t be confused when your GPS takes you there.
“We left the McNeill name up there out of respect and with them being in business for so long, everybody knows where McNeill strawberries are,” Ackerman says.
By mid-June, when more fruit is ready, you can shop from Riddle Farm at 7397 Riddle Rd., St. Pauls.
Until then, enjoy a few more weeks of strawberries.