Five Years Plus

{June 27, 2010}   Strawberry Fields

Strawberries are the most popular berry worldwide and are available all year round from Californian or imported sources. Here in upstate New York the local strawberry season is brief,  sandwiched between  summer solstice and the fourth of July. I have picked berries with my good friend Bodhi for three years now. Yesterday we finally found a day we were free and Cobblestone Farm’s organic strawberry patch was open. By chance Deb and her daughter Mel were able to join us.

Strawberries are one of the foods I aim to always eat organic, as conventionally grown ones are heavily sprayed. In fact, this year strawberries are number 3 on the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list. This list rates the conventionally grown fruits and vegetables most likely to contain high pesticide residues, even after washing. Eating organic (where pesticide use is prohibited) or eliminating these most contaminated foods can reduce ones exposure to pesticides by 80 percent. It’s really worth following the link to check these foods out; for those of you who want to read it here, starting from the worst, here are this year’s “dirty dozen”: celery, peaches, strawberries, apples, blueberries, nectarines, bell peppers, spinach, kale, cherries, potatoes and grapes.

According to the Environmental Working Group, up to 59 pesticides were detected in residue on strawberries. The PAN Pesticides Database is a document that quantifies the amount of 50 common pesticides used on Californian (the primary strawberry growing state) fields. In 2008 a whopping 9,686,580 pounds of pesticides were applied, amounting to an average of 7 pounds of pesticides for every acre of strawberry fields treated (some acres are treated more than once).

"A dense canopy of leaves"

Methyl bromide, one of the pesticides used on conventionally grown strawberries, has received a great deal of attention worldwide. It is a colorless, odorless gas that is used as a soil fumigant to help control weeds, soil-borne diseases, nematodes and insects. Respiratory, kidney and neurological effects are noted health risks and farm workers are particularly susceptible. Methyl bromide is also a recognized ozone depleting chemical. In response to a 2002 amendment to the Montreal Protocol of 1987, its use is being phased out for all uses in all countries. While this was intended to be completed by 2005 in America, a “critical use” exemption has extended this deadline in some areas. The PAN report shows that 2.7 million pounds were still being applied to Californian strawberry fields in 2008. The irony is that organic growing methods are available, can be even more profitable than conventional methods and do not use chemicals that are toxic to the ozone, the earth, farm workers and consumers.

I picked about 30 pounds of chemical-free berries in just over two hours. Not only is picking strawberries physically demanding, it’s a bit of a hunt. The berries are hidden under a dense canopy of leaves and especially in the case of organic strawberries, weeds. I alternate between bending over with a straight back, squatting and later in the morning, picking from my hands and knees. This latter method only works when the berries are plentiful, which fortunately for us, was the case yesterday morning. Below are some picking tips I have developed over the years:

  1. Arrive early.
  2. Remember to bring containers to put picked berries in and a few extra just in case you strike a bumper day.
  3. Resist the temptation to pick the berries where the pointy tip is still green or white. They aren’t ripe and strawberries won’t ripen further once picked.
  4. Pay attention to your body mechanics and stop before you drop.
  5. Remember it takes at least as long to prepare the berries when you get home as it did to pick them.

Deb & Mel: the "straight back" method

Of course, strawberry grazing on the field is one of the highlights of the pick your own experience. I find biting into a strawberry an adventure. Even when choosing that perfect berry to sample, I never know for sure whether it will be bursting with the essence of sweet, deep strawberry-ness or be mouth-puckeringly tart. Each berry is a little different and I pay attention to its unique flavor even as I continue to pick.

Bodhi: the "squatting" posture

What do I do with all those berries, you might ask? I like to eat strawberries year round, as according to Ann Louise Gittleman[1], they contain a cancer-protective agent called ellagic acid and a phyto-nutrient that helps the liver break down excess toxins. So besides a two week in-season feast, I mainly freeze them whole with stems removed to use in smoothies and with Special Breakfast.  I am taking the extra time to first freeze them flat on a cookie tray before bagging them, as last year they stuck together, retained a lot of moisture and became icy. I am also planning to make ice cream (more about this in a future blog) and some strawberry-rhubarb jam for my sister. In the meantime each time I open my fridge I am transported back to the strawberry field by sight and smell. Summer is definitely here.

[1] Fat Flush Foods, New York: McGraw Hill, 2004


Ann Hedley says:

After reading your blog I’m changing my plans for strawberry buying this year . . . perhaps will consider going picking on Canada Day or the weekend. You make a strong case for going organic. I particularly liked the second to last line of “Strawberry Fields”.

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