Berry good year

ADRIENNE FREEMAN Contributing Writer Published April 12, 2012 at 4:20 a.m.
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— In Arkansas, we are blessed in the spring and summer with many delicious locally grown treats from the garden, but maybe none is so anxiously anticipated as the succulent strawberry crop in the spring.

Traditionally ready for harvest in late April, these blushing berries are one of the first harbingers of spring, and aficionados know where to find the sweetest scarlet delights. One of those places is at Berries by Bill in Jackson County.

In Bill Landreth’s strawberry patch on the outskirts of Newport, he has worked at perfecting his berry bounty for 13 years. Row after row of more than 70,000 plants burgeoning with fruit that shine like rubies in the morning sun can be easily seen from U.S. 67.

“We usually start harvesting between April 20 and 25, but with the mild winter and plenty of moisture, we were ready to pick over three weeksearly, starting April 5,” Landreth said. “If conditions hold, this is going to be the best crop Arkansas has seen in over 20 years. Usually a plant yields 1 pound per season, but this year we are looking for a poundand-a-half to 2 pounds.”

Landreth knows what he’s talking about. A farmer “all his life,” Landreth holds a Bachelor of Science degree in agriculture from Arkansas State University. He earned much of his practical experience by farming vegetables while he was growing up.

“When I was a kid, I picked purple hull peas for my grandfather to buy my school clothes. One of my early farming jobs was working at a sweet-corn farm in [nearby] Tupelo. I delivered mustard and turnip greens before I went to school in the morning. I was always late to school, and I still don’t eat greens,” he said, laughing.

Members of Landreth’s crew are extremely careful with the harvest. They wash their hands before they begin, wear disposable gloves while picking and put the delicate fruit directly into the clamshell packaging. Careful, minimal handling yields a better product for customers, Landreth said. With the expected bonus yield, Berries by Bill will offer a “U-Pick” option.

“People look at it like an outing. They enjoy the sunshine and the rewarding feeling of picking their own food,” he said.

Beverly Smith, Landreth’s stand manager, had this to say about Berries by Bill’s customers: “I am always amazed at the number of people we get and how far they come. We havetruckers stop to take loads to sell back in places like Indiana, Illinois. We have families stop to take flats to relatives that have moved away but still remember our berries. We supply festivals around the area. I meet so many nice people.”

Jim Goodson, president of the Mid-America Strawberry Growers Association, estimates that statewide, less than 100 acres produce strawberries at about 15,000 to 22,000 pounds of fruit per acre.

“By far, without question, this is the best strawberry crop in Arkansas in the last 30 years,” Goodson said. “With no frost during the blooming season, we have the highestquality berries available. I expect the season to go through mid-May.”

Cultivation of strawberries began in Europe in the 1300s, but the berry became very popular in California in the early 1900s. California produces up to 80 percent of the country’s berries.

In popular culture, the strawberry is a symbol for Venus, the goddess of love, because of the fruit’s heart shape and red color. Chocolate-covered strawberries are a favorite for Valentine’s Day and other romantic occasions.

Take the steps to make your strawberries all that they can be - do the math and be careful not to overpurchase, as strawberries quickly mold when left at room temperature, and only last a couple of days in the refrigerator. You can easily freeze berries thatyou cannot use right away - just wash the berries, cut the hulls off, and pop them into a freezer bag, removing as much air as possible. Vacuum food sealers do a good job of this; the berries will keep for many months when frozen without air.

Berries by Bill is at 1802 Eastern Ave. in Newport, just off U.S. 67 North at exit 83. The business opens at 8 a.m. every morning that berries are picked and stays open until they are sold out for the day.

When asked about his favorite recipes and ways to eat his bounty, Landreth reached down to a plant bursting with heart-shaped fruit ranging incolors of pale green, delicate blush and crimson red. He plucked one and popped it into his mouth.

“Just like this. None better.”

Most people eat their strawberries in a strawberry shortcake, using either angelfood cake, yellow sponge cake or flaky pastry dotted with whipped cream to complete the dessert. Here are some additional recipes to stretch this year’s bumper crop.

STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE CAKE Adapted from Downhome With The Neelys, Ingredients: 1 (18.25-ounce) box strawberry cake mix 3 cups fresh strawberries, sliced2 tablespoons cognac (if desired) 1/4 cup sugar 1 cup heavy cream 1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 1 (3-ounce) package strawberryflavored gelatin (recommended: Jell-O) Fresh strawberries, for garnish Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Follow cake directions on cakemix box. Remove from oven and cool cake completely.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, combine 3 cups strawberries,cognac and sugar. Let macerate 20 minutes.

Invert and release cake onto a decorative platter.

Whip cream with confectioners’ sugar and vanilla at medium-highspeed until the mixture reaches stiff peaks. Do not overwhip.

Mix gelatin as directed on box. Refrigerate gelatin mix but do not let it harden. It should cool to a liquid consistency.

Using a straw, poke holes all over the cake. Pour gelatin into holes and spread over the top of the cake.

Spread layer of macerated strawberries on top of cake. Spread layer of whipped cream on top of the strawberries, making pretty swirls and ripples. Garnish with fresh strawberries. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours.



POPPY SEED DRESSING Salad ingredients: 1 bag baby spinach, pre-washed 1/2 cup sliced almonds, toasted 1 pint strawberries, hulled and quartered 1/2 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded and finely diced 2 skinless chicken breasts, lightly poached or grilled Dressing ingredients: 3/4 cup mayonnaise 2 tablespoons cider vinegar 1/3 cup sugar 2 tablespoons poppy seeds Directions:

Whisk all dressing ingredients together in bowl and set aside to chill in the refrigerator.

In a large salad bowl, toss together all the salad ingredients except the chicken. Divide between four serving plates. Slice chicken on the slant and arrange over greens. Dress just before serving.

> Where to find strawberriesAre you craving some fresh strawberry shortcake?

Maybe you don’t have the time or space to grow strawberries but don’t mind picking them yourself. Or maybe you just want to pick up a quart on the way home. Here are some of the various strawberry patches throughout the Three Rivers region, including several listed on the website www. Call for the times and days that the businesses are open: BALD KNOB Suviaz Nursery 803 U.S. 167 N.

Phone: (501) 724-2194 CABOT Barnhill Orchards 277 Sandhill Road The address is listed as Lonoke, but Barnhill Orchards

is about seven miles south of Cabot on Arkansas 89.

Phone: (501) 676-2305 The Cabot Patch 500 Mount Carmel Road (Arkansas 321) Phone: (501) 605-1313 Holland Bottom Farm 1255 Arkansas 321 Phone: (501) 843-7152 Mountain High Produce 1000 E. Justice Road, off Arkansas 5 Phone: (501) 983-8881 GRIFFITHVILLE Francisco Munoz

Arkansas 11 (next to the former Griffithville school) (501) 278-7307

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