By Ray Linville
Finding locally grown strawberries is a sure sign that spring has arrived. As I was driving in the Monkey Junction area of Wilmington on the last weekend in March, I noticed a berry stand that had been closed for months was open.
North Carolina, the third largest producer of strawberries in the United States, has the country’s largest fresh market for strawberries. Finding fresh local strawberries at a stand means that they soon will be available across the state at farmers markets, grocery stores, and pick-your-own farms.
At the stand, I learned from Grace Drewry, who was operating it with her mother Gay Williams, that they had just opened it that day for the 2016 season — with pounds of juicy strawberries locally grown ready for sale. Because I expressed surprise that local strawberries could be ripe this early in the season, Drewry explained: “These were grown ‘under the dome,’ and today is our first day open.”
Growing strawberries “under the dome” accelerates their arrival to market several days before the first of standard spring strawberries can be picked and packaged. Later this spring the stand will also sell blueberries and blackberries – all grown in Pender County on the huge complex known as Lewis Nursery and Farms, a third-generation family farm, less than 25 miles away.
In addition to 100 acres of spring strawberries in Pender County, Lewis recently added 20 acres of what it calls “tunnel grown” winter strawberries, or the berries that Drewry describes as grown “under the dome.” Its other production includes 350 acres of blueberries and 20 acres of blackberries. Its berries typically are the ones on display marked “local” by the grocery store chains that want to promote their home-grown sources.
Drewry said that the enthusiasm for fresh strawberries is tremendous. Customers were lining up well before the stand opened at 8:30 a.m. on its first day. It will stay open about nine hours each day for the next three months as flats of freshly picked berries are delivered.
For opening day, Drewry and Williams had received 24 flats, each one containing 12 one-pound containers, and by early afternoon they had already sold a fourth of their inventory – with little promotion other than an “open now” banner at the stand. The steady line of customers waiting to be served was a better signal to anyone driving by that the stand was open.
The mother and daughter team have operated the stand together for several years. Williams started nine years ago, and Drewry joined her in 2013. They both bubbled with joy at selling fresh berries to the public. “Have a blessed day,” they told me as I left, and I did because every day that you enjoy fresh strawberries is a blessed one.