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Strawberries in March? It's Happening in Tennessee

Wednesday, March 01, 2017 | 2:47pm

NASHVILLE—Seasonal eating is catching on. Farmers have responded to that trend of eating local foods when in season with efforts to extend the growing seasons of their crops. In Tennessee, one fruitful example of farmer ingenuity is the arrival of local strawberries in March.

Some farmers jumpstart Tennessee’s famous strawberry crop with greenhouses and high tunnel houses. High tunnels resemble open greenhouses, but are passively heated and ventilated with crops grown directly in the soil. Strawberries set in these protected places during January will be ready to pick this month. That’s about 7 weeks earlier than traditional field berries.

The recent warm temperatures have accelerated activity in field-grown plants too, so even field-grown berries have the potential to arrive earlier than usual. The maturation process can be slowed if more typical cool weather returns, or stopped by a hard freeze.

Some frost and freeze protection for Tennessee berries is necessary almost every spring, so farmers are ready to take crop-saving measures. With recent mild weather prompting early growth, strawberries may be more vulnerable and more dependent on those methods.

Growers who use cloth row covers to help plants fight cold conditions have had to remove them in recent weeks to prevent heat buildup. If the forecast calls for frigid weather, those covers will have to be painstakingly reapplied. Some growers also use overhead irrigation to supplement frost protection, covering berries in ice to protect them from even colder winds.

Tennessee’s strawberry season usually runs from approximately mid-April in West Tennessee until the end of June in upper East Tennessee. To prolong the season on their own farms, many enterprising growers cultivate several varieties. Some varieties mature early and others ripen later, so farms with a selection keep customers returning for each new harvest.

Local strawberry growers, farmers markets and retail outlets with local strawberries can be found on the Pick Tennessee mobile app and online.