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KUOW's environment beat brings you stories on the ongoing cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, alternative energy, the health of the Puget Sound, coal transportation and more. We're also partnered with several stations across the Northwest to bring you environmental news via EarthFix.

Warm Winter Means Bountiful Northwest Berry Season

Nelida Martinez, one of the farmers growing their businesses at Viva Farms, a farm incubator project
KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols
Nelida Martinez, one of the farmers growing their businesses at Viva Farms, a farm incubator project in the Skagit Valley

  Strawberries, beware. Blueberries and raspberries are ripening early this year.

A warm winter has given way to a hot spring, which means berries are ripening early this year in the Pacific Northwest. That’s great for some growers in the short term – and the rest of us hankering for juicy fruit – but it’s also created competition among farmers.

Nelida Martinez, a Skagit County famer, aggregates her crops through Viva Farms, an incubator that helps farmers with skill but money work on their own farms. Normally, the strawberries at her feet would still be green, or at least pale. But this year? They're already ripe and delicious.  

"This year did come early, there was no frost, there was no snow this year,” Martinez said through an interpreter. “It’s been really hot. So everything is a lot earlier than it has been."

[asset-images[{"caption": "Strawberries from Viva Farms. Although they don't offer U-Pick, several area farms do - and would welcome the extra hands as labor is short during this compressed berry harvest season.", "fid": "118259", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201506/strawberries_from_viva_farms.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]It could be a good year for Martinez. Because she planted ever-bearing strawberries, which ripen all summer long, an early season for her means a longer season. She could make more money at a time when she's got a business to grow and a son who recently underwent cancer treatment. 

But not all strawberry farmers are benefiting from the early season. Some farmers planted June-bearing strawberries, which mostly ripen all at once, usually about mid-June. This year blueberries and raspberries are ripening at almost the same time. That’s led to competition for labor and space at processing facilities. 

"Because of the compressed season that means we have to pick that much faster. And we just don’t have enough people power to get that crop off of our fields," says Tom Baumann, director of the Pacific Berry Resource Centre in British Columbia. 

Baumann says consumers can help farmers in this situation: "I really encourage people to go out and do U-Pick. Make it an experience. Go to the farm, bring your kids and that will really help the growers."

Baumann says there’s a risk that if the summer’s really dry, farmers without access to water could see some of their plants die off, resulting in a poor berry crop next year. Drought in eastern Washington already has forced cutbacks in water delivery to farmers with other crops. 

But for now, he advises people to enjoy one of the most bountiful berry seasons ever.