A tale of Wisconsin's ripening strawberries

Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Wisconsin State Farmer

COLGATE - The tractor rolled through mud as passengers on the wagon listened to the sloshing and splashing, yet as they walked between straw-lined rows of red, ripe strawberries, stepping was easy - as was the picking. 

The scene at Basse's Farm Market in Colgate played out at many strawberry farms across the state over the past few weeks, as farmers dealt with a cold, wet spring and a warm spell where all the berries ripened at once. 

Basse's berries

It was one of the worst years Roger Basse could remember, said his son Blake. A cold, wet spring with "tons of rain."

As Blake Basse describes it, strawberry plants "don't like wet feet." The plants can get root rot. Once the hot spell a few weeks ago hit, the plants, which were already "in survival mode," ripened the berries all at the same time. 

"Usually we go through a patch three to four times," Blake said. "Everything ripened at once so we had to forgo some of our fields and concentrate on our best fields. That's why the season is so short, we had to skip some fields."

Strawberries ripened all at once at many farms in Wisconsin. The cold wet spring and rainy days during picking season put a damper on sales at some farms.

The strawberry season at Basse's started June 13. In a normal season, Blake said it would last about two and a half or maybe three weeks. This year the season ended just shy of two weeks. 

Blake and his parents, Roger and Becky, and sister Sarah, are still giving the strawberry season their best shot. Their two best fields were loaded with great berries, Blake said. 

However, the older fields couldn't handle the stress of the weather. 

"They didn't do as well," said Blake. "We kind of cut our losses on that."

They had hoped more people would have stopped to pick strawberries with the U. S. Open down the road at Erin Hills, but right when they needed the berries to be picked, the pickers weren't there. 

"We just roll with the punches," Blake said. "I always say, the berries are only as good as the weather will allow. We are at the mercy of the weather, so we just roll with it."

The Basses grow peas, raspberries, blackberries, apples and have a fall festival with a corn maze. 

Strawberry pickers at Basse's Farm Market in Colgate head down rows of strawberries on June 24. Plants were loaded with berries, which made for easy picking.

"We do a lot of different crops just to mitigate risk," Blake pointed out. "One crop might not be as good where others are better."

While their pea crop is one of the best they've seen in a long time, they're trying to figure out how to keep the older strawberry plants alive for next year. 

Berries sitting on the vine will rot or fall off, which isn't the best for the plants. When new fields are planted, workers go through and manually de-blossom each plant so the energy of the plant goes into making runners and not berries. 

"The same process has to happen with the older plants. The berries didn't get picked," Blake explained. "We're worried about renovating them."

One process for renovating the older plants is using a big mower, but it is harsh on the plants.

"It's definitely not one of those years you brag about," Blake added.

Walvoord on the lake

In Oostburg, at Walvoord's Berry Farm, the season has played out slightly different for Randy Walvoord. 

They've planted for early, mid-season and late ripening, with a typical 10-day span between each.

"We've got a really nice crop. It's just when it's raining every day, you're not picking them," said Randy. "Unlike other years, they all kind of got ripe at the same time."

Randy has Lake Michigan on his side and figures their strawberry season will go into the second week of July. Usually their strawberry season last 30 days. Since 1979, when the farm started, they have never closed before July 4. 

"We're a mile from Lake Michigan so we get east winds off the lake that cool us down," Randy explained. "We've been blessed with some cooler weather near the lake. That's always helped us."

Strawberries at Walvoord's farm weren't as far along as other places when the endless rain came.

"We were just starting," said Randy. "We were picking to make sure we kept up early." 

A recent study on the impact of global climate change looked at agricultural impacts and found southern states would suffer the most severe impacts because their already warm climates would become hotter.

On the warm, windy days in early June, Randy said they ran irrigation off and on for two days to keep the strawberry plants cool and slow down ripening. 

Now with all the berries ripening, Randy needs people to come and pick them - as he looks at the forecast calling for several days of rain.

"It's at the point where you need nice weather to get after them. We need decent crowds coming in," said Randy. 

He figures they lose 75 to 80 percent of their customers if there is rain, especially in the morning.

"Morning rains really hurt," Randy added. "The next couple of days is going to tell the story."

For some farms, the story had ended. Along with Basse's, several other berry farms across Wisconsin state on their website or Facebook page that their strawberry season has ended.

Others are close to done with picking or will be finishing in the beginning of July. 

On the Engelberry Farm Facebook page a post said the heavier soil in the Wausau area is causing the berries to ripen slower, but there are no guarantees with Mother Nature. 

"What are you going to do? You take care of what you can control," said Randy. "What God is going to do weather wise, that’s what is going to happen."