Baskets brim with bright red berries at Burris Farm Market in Loxley, signaling to shoppers that fresh, Alabama-grown products are ripe for the picking — and eating.
Strawberries are a labor of love for farmer Greg Burris, who grows the sweet, juicy berries just 10 minutes from the Baldwin County market he operates with his wife, Kay, and son, Drew.
“I just like watching them grow,” said Burris, who started growing berries, peaches and other produce in the ‘80s. “It’s a beautiful crop.”
It’s time-intensive, too. Plugs, or young strawberry plants, were planted on rows of plastic lined with drip irrigation in mid-October. By early December, white flowers blanketed the field, and limited berry-picking commenced before Christmas. It was an early crop, which Burris attributes to a warm winter.
“Strawberries don’t wait on anyone,” said Burris, 68, who planted 34,000 plants this year. “When they’re ripe, you have to pick them.”
The Burris family, and other growers across the state, closely monitor weather fluctuations, like this February’s freezing temperatures and pelting rain. Burris turned to frost protection through a sprinkler system, which rotates across the field, coating fragile strawberries in a case of ice.
“I would rather have ice on a berry than rain,” he said. “Then the rain doesn’t beat and damage the fruit.”
Supporting specialty crop farmers like Burris is the mission of the Alabama Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association (AFVGA), a division of the Alabama Farmers Federation. Specialty crops are a $77 million industry in Alabama, and consumer demand is growing, said AFVGA Executive Director Hunter McBrayer.
“Families are interested in buying local, seasonal products, and we grow some of the best right here in Alabama,” McBrayer said. “Our goal is to connect families and Alabamians to their local growers through initiatives like Sweet Grown Alabama.”
The Sweet Grown Alabama agricultural branding program launched last fall and soon will provide an online database for Alabamians to find local, fresh products. Learn more at SweetGrownAlabama.org.
McBrayer noted strawberry season in Alabama usually lasts until early May, when production decreases with longer, hotter days.
Back at the Burris Farm Market bakery, strawberries are sliced and added to a plethora of goods, such as strawberry pizza with a pecan shortbread crust, Jell-O pie and a signature strawberry shortcake topped with a mound of fresh whipped cream.
While Burris said he enjoys the shortcake, he’s partial to biting into berries plucked straight from the field. And after decades in the berry-growing business, Burris has a tip for buyers.
“If you put berries in a zip-top bag or airtight container and place in the refrigerator, it’ll seal out the oxygen, and they’ll stay fresher longer,” he said. “They hold up well.”