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Farmers expect bumper crop

Cloudy, wet weather leaves strawberries in 'vigorous condition'

Strawberries are a sure sign that summer is coming, but you have probably noticed, it is coming slowly.

Rich, red local strawberries are turning up on store shelves and at farm gate markets, but on most farms there isn't enough ripe fruit in the fields to allow people to pick their own.

One exception is Bill and Sandra Zylmans' W & A Farms, which will open for U-pick berries this weekend.

"It's a sure sign that summer is here and picking strawberries is a great tradition for Father's Day," Zylmans said. "There's real excitement when the strawberries are ready because they are the first fruit of the year."

The rain clouds that have delayed the ripening of local strawberries have a silver lining. The absence of extreme heat and dry conditions has left the plants in a "vigorous condition" and may extend the picking season to a full four weeks, Zylmans said.

Early season and everbearing varieties that are available this week tend to be red and firm.

Look for Puget Reliance and the large fruit of Tillamook.

Mid-season varieties such as Totem and Hood are the superjuicy, red-to-the-core strawberries that imprint themselves permanently in your memory.

"Those are the deep red juicy berries that you'll drool all over your shirt," Zylmans said.

The strawberries that ripen through June are perfect for eating. In July, the sugar content of the berries peaks, making them perfect for jams and preserves.

Up the Fraser Valley in Langley and Abbotsford, the picking season is at least a week behind normal. Langley's Krause Berry Farms & Estate Winery plans to open for U-pick customers around June 22.

It's impossible to predict the exact opening date for most farms, so the farmers urge customers to call ahead to ensure the fields are open. Heavy rains will also close most fields.

"We are picking now for wholesaling, but we don't have enough yet for U-pick," said berry farmer Alf Krause. "It's just been too cold for the last two weeks."

While cool weather is not conducive to growing the imported golf-ball sized berries that populate grocery store shelves through the winter, local growers don't seem concerned.

"We are trying to grow a size of berry that competes against the California berries, but on flavour we win," said Zylmans. "No contest."

The real advantage that B.C. berries have over their California counterparts is true ripeness.

California berries are picked before they are ripe and never achieve the through-and-through ripeness and flavour of a local berry, said Zylmans.

When the so-called Junebearing varieties are exhausted early in July, late everbearing strawberries will begin to ripen and provide fruit right through September, if the weather is good.

If you pick your berries on a hot day, get them home and either eat or process them the same day, Sandra Zylmans advised.

"On a cool day like we've been having they will last two or three days," she said.

Zylmans doesn't wash her strawberries unless they are obviously dusty and even then, just a rinse.

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