Grower-shippers predict good quality and strong demand for late-spring and summer Carolina fruit deals.

After a shaky mid-April start, the North Carolina strawberry season was yielding consistent supplies of high-quality fruit by the end of the month, said Curtis Smith, president of TC Smith Produce Farm Inc., Seven Springs, N.C.

“The quality’s good right now but early on it was rough,” Smith said April 30. “We had poor pollination and extreme fluctuations. But the past week we got the heat, and it brought the crop back on pretty quick.”

TC Smith Produce Farm’s strawberry acreage is up slightly over last year, Smith said.

Smith anticipated strong demand at the end of April to continue throughout the deal.

“Strawberries are the first local crop of the season,” he said. “Demand tells us customers are ready for something fresh and local.”

Patterson Farms, China Grove, N.C., began shipping strawberries the week of April 27, said Doug Patterson, vice president. The company’s deal should run through mid-June, he said.

Patterson Farms increased its strawberry acreage about 10% this year — a move justified by strong demand in recent years, Patterson said.

“It’s been a good seller for us,” he said.

James Sharp, president of Wilson, N.C.-based Fresh-Pik, reported “superior” quality on the strawberries his company was packing in late April.
The deal was running about a week to ten days later than normal, thanks to Mother Nature, and was projected to wind down near the end of May, Sharp said.

The good quality was matched with good demand, he said.

“We’ve seen good demand on the East Coast, and it should stay strong,” Sharp said.

TC Smith Produce Farm will begin its cantaloupe deal at the end of June or the beginning of July, and its watermelon deal at the beginning of July, Smith said.
Patterson Farms expects to kick off its cantaloupe deal in mid-July, Patterson said.

Patterson expected good quality and yields on cantaloupes and strawberries in 2009.

In late April, Edenton, N.C.-based Virginia Fork Produce Co. Inc. was transplanting watermelon plants from greenhouses, with planting beginning the week of May 4, said Leonard Small Jr., owner.

Shipments should begin the last week of July and, weather permitting, extend through September, he said.

Small is hoping not to repeat the 2008 watermelon season, when an early finish to the Georgia deal, combined with exceptionally dry weather further north, pushed prices too high.

“Last year watermelons were $7.99 in stores,” he said. “I don’t know if anyone will pick up an $8 watermelon this year.”

Small said he’ll gladly take a lower price if it means getting rid of all his melons.

“I hope somebody buys them at some price,” he said. “The last eight years we’ve been able to get rid of them. I hope we can this year.”

Fresh-Pik expects to begin harvesting watermelons about July 1, with shipments continuing through mid-September, Sharp said.

Production of specialty sprite melons will likely begin in late June and wind up about Sept. 1, Sharp said. Boasting brix levels of up to 17, the sprite is like a honeydew but, at 1 ¼ pounds, much smaller, he said.