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Bountiful strawberry season expected

They are big, red, juicy, full of flavour, and about a week or two early.

They are big, red, juicy, full of flavour, and about a week or two early.

And that has a couple of Richmond's largest strawberry producers busy as a stretch of just the right blend of weather in the past month or so has created one of the better crops in recent memory.

Bill Zylmans, who runs family owned W&A Farm on Westminster Highway says this year could be one of the best ever - even better than 2013's bountiful harvest.

"Last year was okay, but what we're seeing this year is going to be over the top," said Zylmans whose father started the business in 1952. Today, the 18 acres he dedicates to strawberries represents his biggest crop.

On a good year, each acre can yield three tons of fruit.

"That ends up to be quite a pile of strawberries," he said, adding the average yield per acre is one and a half to two tons.

"This is going to make up for all those average years," he said. "With the (operating) costs going up all around us, we need a payback year like this."

The key to the expected bounty has not only been the near-perfect weather this spring but a chilly period stretching back into the winter months.

"That puts them (strawberry plants) into a deep dormancy," Zylmans explained. "Back before last Christmas we had a few good and cold days. That helps put them to sleep that much more, which allows them to come back in the spring just that much more energetic."

Heading into early April, when Zylmans began making his rounds of the strawberry fields, there was the right mixture of mild weather and just enough rain to kickstart the growing cycle.

"My plants were telling me this was going to be a good season," Zylmans said. "They were lush, flamboyant and the buds started to come out a bit earlier than normal. This is probably the third earliest season in 20 years now."

According to the Farmer's Almanac, the temperature forecasted for southern B.C. in June is expected to be three degrees above average (17.5 Celsius) with below average rainfall of 15 mm (30 mm below average).

Heading into July temperatures are anticipated to remain average for the month (16.5 degrees) with below average precipitation.

That's good news for the strawberries.

"We don't want extreme heat. This last week has been awesome and a little timely rain is okay, too," Zylmans said.

But things can change quickly. Just ask fellow longtime farmer Bob Featherstone whose 12-acre strawberry crop along Steveston Hwy. in south Richmond last season met a different fate than Zylmans'.

"Last year was a bit of a disaster," Featherstone said. "The weather took its toll on the late berries, which are called Ranier. They are beautiful tasting, and just as we were ready to start harvesting we got four straight days and nights of rain."

That caused much of the crop to spoil.

"They all went to mould and we never picked another berry after that," he said, adding a normal season is four weeks long.

"Last year, we picked for two and a half weeks and that was the end of the season," he said. "They are a good berry on a dry season. When you get too much moisture, well, things didn't pan out."

But this time around, Featherstone is optimistic the season will be a good one for customers to enjoy strawberries fresh from the fields.

Featherstone said his operation is a little different from some local strawberry stands in that all the fruit is fresh picked on the day.

"We don't have a cooling system, so there's no previous day's berries sold on our farm," he said. "We're bringing in berries continually. So, you're buying fruit that, in some cases, is less than an hour old. It's as fresh as you can get them."