Island's strawberry crop in short supply

Blight has reduced the island
Blight has reduced the island's strawberry crop to almost nothing this year.
— image credit: DEE AXELROD/Staff Photo

Bainbridge Island’s Strawberry King and Queen don’t have much of a kingdom this year.

The regal pair will be presented to the crowds at today’s Street Fair, but the sweet fruit they symbolize is in short supply.

The Bainbridge crop, grown commercially on the four acres of Bainbridge Island Farms co-owned by Karen Selvar and Dick McKinney, has been hit by black root rot fungus.

An unusually inclement, cool spring provided perfect conditions for the fungus to thrive.

The heat wave that followed withered many of the affected plants.

“It’s been terrible – mostly for (Selvar), but also for us,” said Jeannie Wood, owner of La Belle Saison.

Wood, who has bought Selvar’s strawberries for her patisserie since she set up shop on the island in 1991, has been forced to turn to off-island sources for strawberries – not a satisfactory substitute, she said.

“You can really tell the difference,” Wood said. “If you cut into one of Karen’s berries, even the little ones, they are red through – there’s no white.

“What you get commercially (from off-island growers) is just not the same.”

The drop in quality has meant that Wood – who typically uses two or three flats of the Bainbridge-grown berries each week for her sauces, glazes and jams – has cut back to a single flat of “commercial” berries.

McKinney, who produces jams and syrups from the berries in the Bainbridge Island Farms kitchen, says he and Selvar expect to harvests only about 1,750 pounds of strawberries, instead of the usual 20 tons.

Selvar still has a few berries to sell at the Day Road East stand she shares with Akio Suyematsu. The fungus does not affect the newly planted “first-year” fields, Selvar says, but takes a season to get a foothold.

“It kind of sneaks up on you,” she said. “I’m selling mostly first-year produce. We’re just going to make the rest into jam.”

The farm’s soil has been tested by islander Olaf Ribeiro, an expert in plant diagnoses.

To address the fungus problem, Selvar says, she must build up the health of the soil with micro-organisms.

“It’s controllable,” Selvar said. “I don’t know if it’s curable.”

The land Selvar cultivates today is the same plot she picked as a child. She grew up down the street, and came to the berry patch to pick and make money to buy clothes for school.

Selvar’s pickers for this season, Audrey Wilson and her aunt, Leah Wilson, also have a history with the strawberry fields.

“They’re part of the old island farming community,” Selvar said. “Their grandfather used to pick these same fields.”

As an adult growing berries on that same land, Selvar says she has felt the support of the community in her conviction that it is important to have food grown locally.

“Sometimes I wonder ‘why am I doing this?” she said. “But I prefer this sort of lifestyle. It’s a lot of work but I do love it.”

Ripple effect

The loss of much of the strawberry harvest has affected other island businesses, as well.

Bainbridge Island Vineyards and Winery, which produce its strawberry wine with Selvar’s fruit, has decided not to use other berries for the popular beverage.

“We will be making extra raspberry wine instead,” said Ian Bentryn, who noted that the winery is one of the few still honoring the vineyard tradition of only using fruit from the geographic region on the label.

Wood, too, said she will forego making and selling jam this season rather than use off-island berries.

Even with fields in peak condition, Selvar can’t meet the demand for her produce.

Other local growers, like Danny Rodriguez of Island Grown Farm, continue to supply the island with modest numbers of berries, but Selvar is the only large-scale commercial grower on the island.

While the fungus has made life difficult in the short run, the longer-term problem of loss of island agriculture also worries her.

Selvar’s fields are among the last of what was once a thriving island-wide industry.

“I would love to have more of a community – more people growing, and more people to work with. That’s how the island used to be,” Selvar said. “The problem is, we’re losing farms.”

Rising taxes pressure farmers like Selvar to sell.

Unremitting physical labor and the difficulty in finding help discourage others.

A strawberry row is picked once every three days, Selvar says, but the cycle speeds up when the weather heats up.

“At 80 degrees, you have to move through the rows quicker,” Selvar said, “because the berries ripen faster.”

Despite an estimated loss of about $20,000 from this year’s blighted harvest, Selvar still plans to expand her acreage.

Much of the land that she cultivates with strawberries and planted with 2,000 noble fir seedlings this spring belongs to farmer Akio Suyematsu, whose pumpkin patch is a popular October destination for many families.

Selvar plans to buy additional acreage from Suyematsu, perhaps as much as 10 acres.

By December she and McKinney plan to open a stand at the farm.

In the meantime, there is a silver lining of sorts to the diminished crop; because fewer strawberries mean less work, Selvar will be able to attend her 20-year Bainbridge High School reunion this summer.

“I’ll have extra time for it,” she said. “Usually, I wouldn’t.”

Kathryn Haines

contributed to this report.

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