North Carolina grower-shippers expect steady volumes of high-quality fruit this summer.

Wilson, N.C.-based Fresh-Pik began shipping strawberries from North Carolina in mid-April and expected to ship through early June, said James Sharp, the company’s president.

The deal wound up getting started about on time, though Sharp said cold weather early in the growing season led growers to think there could be a delay.

A hot spurt later in the season helped the crop catch up, he said.

While acreage is similar to last year on the company’s North Carolina strawberry crop, yields are higher, Sharp said.

The bulk of Fresh-Pik’s crop is sold at farm stands or through independent retailers between North Carolina and New Jersey, he said.

Some of the product winds up in North Carolina foodservice channels, but very little at chain retail stores, Sharp said.

That’s partly because the variety the company grows, while sweeter and better-tasting than other varieties, doesn’t last as long on the shelf as others do, he said.

Seven Springs, N.C.-based TC Smith Produce Farm Inc. began shipping strawberries about April 10, said Curtis Smith, the company’s president.

After an uncertain start, Mother Nature has delivered a high-quality crop, Smith said.

“It’s been sort of a rollercoaster with the weather here,” he said. “It was an extremely wet March, then it was extremely dry. But dry is good for strawberries. The taste and quality have been as good as we’ve seen in a right good while.”

Early May markets were steady for a large crop state-wide, Smith said.

“There are a lot of North Carolina berries on the market now,” he said. “There’s fairly good demand. It hasn’t set the world on fire, but it’s been OK.”

TC Smith expects to ship strawberries from North Carolina through May, Smith said.  The company’s distribution typically goes down the coast as far as Georgia and up as far as Virginia or Maryland, he said.

In addition to strawberries, Fresh-Pik will be shipping melons grown in North Carolina this year, Sharp said.
The company began planting watermelons about April 20 and expects to continue through about June 1.
Harvest should begin in the first part of July and run through August, Sharp said.

Fresh-Pik grows its own watermelons and markets those grown on 400 acres by growers in the state’s Southeast Growers Association cooperative.

For 2010, the company has plans to boost its personal watermelon production by 30%, Sharp said.

“Some of our retail accounts had more interest in the product,” Sharp said of the expected boost in personal watermelon volumes.

Despite the increase, he does not see personals stealing much market share from full-sized watermelons.
“It’s a niche market,” he said. “I think it’s a steady deal.”

Fresh-Pik also expects to begin shipping cantaloupes in early July, about the same time as the company’s watermelon deal is expected to take off, Sharp said.

The company expects to market about 150 acres of cantaloupes grown by Southeast Growers Association co-op members, similar to last year, he said.

This year North Carolina growers will grow, mainly on a trial basis, new cantaloupe varieties in an effort to boost shelf life, Sharp said.

Fresh-Pik also ships sprite melons from about early July through August, Sharp said. Production of the specialty melon is expected to be up by about 10% this year because of higher demand, he said.

“It’s unique,” Sharp said, explaining the sprite’s rising popularity. “It has white flesh and extremely high brix — 16% to 18%, compared to 11% to 12% for cantaloupes. It just fits in good with the melon category.”

TC Smith Produce Farm expects to kick off its cantaloupe and watermelon deals in late June or early July, Smith said. Watermelon production is expected to be about the same, and cantaloupe acreage up slightly, he said.

The company expects to ship watermelons and cantaloupes through Labor Day, Smith said.

Blackberries and raspberries are among the fruits North Carolina is growing more of, said Nick Augostini, marketing specialist for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, Raleigh.

“It’s really picked up in the western part of the state,” he said.