Strawberries are hitting peak season in the Bay Area, with sweet pints packed into farmers’ markets and CSA boxes around the city. Here in Northern California, we are blessed with a tantalizingly long growing season, and strawberries are some of the earliest fruit at the spring markets, continuing to ripen well into late summer. But connoisseurs know that not all types of strawberries are created equal. In particular, the Chandler variety has a crushable thin skin, is red all the way through, and is not just exceptionally sweet, but also bursting with flavor. The king of Cali strawberries is a limited edition, really only available in May and June — as in right now.
Small farmers who specialize in Chandler strawberries look forward to these two months as the big event of the year. But of course, this year, peak strawberry season coincided with the orders to shelter in place. With restaurants shutting down and schools letting out early for the summer, strawberry farmers got a bad scare at the start of their season. Some have resorted to plowing an overabundance of unsold strawberries back into the soil. While any food waste is always sad, it’s a heartache with these prized local berries.
Yerena Farms got hit hard when the restaurants closed. Poli Yerena and his family grew for Driscoll for years, before breaking convention and going organic. He now has 17 acres, split between Watsonville and Castroville, where he grows strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, boysenberries, “all berries,” the farmer proclaims. Yerena estimates that 80 percent of his business came from farmers’ markets, the rest pouring into pie bakeries (Three Babes) and jam shops (Inna). Within that 80 percent, almost half went to chefs, who would swing through the markets early, snapping up the best berries before the crowds. So even though farmers’ markets are still open, when the restaurants shuttered, he had a rough start to the season.
His son Adrian Yerena has been a chef at seafood mainstay Hayes Street Grill for 15 years. With the restaurant closed during the pandemic, Adrian is helping his father set up a website and offer home deliveries for the first time ever. In the meantime, the berries don’t stop growing, and they have to be harvested, to ensure that the plants continue yielding fruit for the rest of the season. “We had to dig up two acres, and replace them with green beans,” Yerena says. His voice lowers, confirming worst fears. “Those were Chandlers.”
JSM Organics felt the fallout when local schools closed. Javier Zamora leases nearly 100 acres in the Pajaro Valley, just north of Salinas, and he’s a big personality in the Mexican immigrant community. He’s got a robust business these days, estimating that 50 percent goes to grocery stores, 25 percent to schools, 20 percent to restaurants, and 5 percent to farmers’ markets. It’s super sweet that the Pajaro Valley Unified School District is feeding their students local, organic berries, but when schools shut down, sending kids home, Zamora lost the entire month of May and part of June, or by his estimate, a loss of 21,000 pounds of strawberries.
He also plowed some berries back into the ground. A couple of charities came through with orders, including Escuela Popular in San Jose, which is boxing up produce for families in need. And fortunately, his grocery orders are now picking up. “Being a small grower, there are always challenges,” Zamora says. “We wear different sombreros, and work with different buyers, in order to stay alive.” So it certainly complicated the season, but this optimist is confident he’s going to patch through. After all, Chandlers are already on shelves at Bi-Rite, and they may make a star appearance at Fort Mason this weekend.
Swanton Berry Farm has a distinct business model, in that it’s a travel destination. Jim Cochran, now in his 70s, pioneered the first certified organic strawberry farm in California in the 80s, responsible for the Chandler’s rise to fame. Swanton is now one of the best known and loved farm stands in the Bay Area, where families road trip out to pick a bounty of strawberries and feast on shortcake. Cochran estimates his usual business is 40 percent farm stand, 30 percent farmers’ markets, and 30 percent grocery. He lost those chefs at the markets, and had to close down his pick-it-yourself operation . But dedicated Chandler fans are still showing up. “That surprised me,” Cochran ponders. “I thought they loved to sit around the farm stand, which is usually packed with people, full picnic tables, and kids running around.” But even though they can’t hang out anymore, “They’re still washing their hands, wearing masks, and coming in,” the strawberry man says.
Completely separate from the pandemic, Swanton’s just having a hard year for garden-variety reasons — following a couple of “catastrophic” years for soil health, Cochran says he had to take out a loan on his house. Yerena is also struggling to find labor right now, currently operating with half of his usual team, employing eight hands instead of the usual 15. The reality is that farming is hard at the best of times. “I used to know this old cattle rancher,” says Cochran. “Somebody asked him, ‘you must have had some hard years during the Great Depression.’ He said, ‘No. The hardest years were the drought years.’”
Add to that the various ways the pandemic has disrupted and complicated local food systems, and it’s especially bad timing for strawberries, given that the season was sideswiped by the worst of the crisis. Still, it would be a shame to let these beauties go to waste. So please, eat up the Chandlers while you can, put tart Seascapes into jams and pie fillings, and savor all of the other organic and heirloom varieties throughout the rest of the summer. Here’s where to stock up on local strawberries right now, at the peak of their season. (Disclosure: I am also a senior editor at Good Eggs, which sells products from Swanton Berry Farm and JSM Organics for delivery.)
Farmers markets: Ferry Plaza, Civic Center, Mission
Grocery stores: BiRite
Delivery: Order online
Farmers markets: Fort Mason
Grocery stores: BiRite
Delivery: via Good Eggs
Swanton Berry Farm
Farmers markets: Ferry Plaza, Berkeley, Noe Valley, Marin, Menlo Park
Grocery stores: Rainbow, Monterey Markets, Whole Foods
Farmstand: Swanton Berry Farm in Davenport
Delivery: via Good Eggs