In late April, Megan Hallstone of Sauvie Island’s Columbia Farms walked out to her family’s strawberry fields to check the plants for flowers. Typically, strawberries ripen six weeks after blossoming, little white flowers halo-ing a yellow core. When she didn’t see blooms, she knew the berries would be late. As the cold, wet weather continued from April into May, she watched green berries emerge from the plants, but the downpour kept them from reddening. Berries can ripen without a lot of sun, but it takes longer and the fruit isn’t as sweet. Instead, berries taste, well, like rain.
In late May, Portlanders typically head to Sauvie Island toting baskets and containers to fill with bright, juicy strawberries at one of the island’s several pick-your-own berry farms. This is the 25th year Hallstone’s family farm has offered u-pick berries. Last year, the berry season started with strawberries before Memorial Day. Columbia U-Pick originally planned on opening on May 25, but didn’t open until June 7. According to Hallstone, strawberry season on Sauvie Island typically lasts for three weeks; it was cold and rainy the first two u-pick weekends, and temperatures hit the high 90s on the third.
Oregon strawberries are a bit of a phenomenon: like pinot noir grapes, they sweeten slowly, thanks to the balance of rain and sun, cool evenings and summer heat. In perfect conditions, this creates berries like the perpetually popular Hood strawberry, incredibly sweet, nuanced in its flavor, and red to the center. Too much sun, and berries never emerge, or they develop the light-pink hue of a sunburned berry. Too much cold weather, and the fruit never gets quite sweet enough, if they ripen at all. Cold and wet spring weather led to soaked fields and unripened berries this year, followed by a rapid heat wave. As a result, summer u-pick season has been dramatically impacted right at the start, meaning Portlanders hoping to pick their own peak-season strawberries may be out of luck.
The weather wasn’t just unusual this spring; it was record breaking. The National Weather Service (NWS) reported a record rainfall of 12.23 inches of rain at Portland International Airport this year from April 1 to June 12 — the wettest spring on record. The excess spring rain flooded the fields at Sauvie Island, while cold temperatures prevented berries from ripening on time. This combination of unusually cold and wet weather impeded the growing cycle of the strawberry plants and led to a late harvest.
Even those who were able to ripen berries in the cold still struggled to sell them at the market. Throughout the beginning of the season, strawberry farmers arrived at the farmers market with berries soaked from excess spring rain. “Typically berries are good the next day; that doesn’t seem to be working this year,” says Amber Holland, Operations Director of the Portland Farmers Market. “The fruit is retaining moisture because it’s soaking up moisture in the fields, it’s picked while it’s wet, and it’s stored wet. This causes it to break down.”
The impact of the particularly ephemeral berries is compounded by a low turnout at farmers markets. When it rains, fewer people show up. As a result, some berry farmers have had to sell their berries at a significant discount, taking a loss; that’s if they don’t end up throwing them away. “Even our regular shoppers don’t show up or stick around as much when it’s raining,” Holland says. “The longer we can keep people in the market, the more they’ll buy. ... When it rains, there’s not much we can do.”
Weather is always an unpredictable factor for farmers. But cold weather isn’t always the problem. Last year, a heatwave in June singed Columbia Farm’s berry field. When Hallstone and her parents visited the fields to investigate they found damaged berries that looked like they’d been seared by fire. “We’re just hoping for a mild summer because when the berries ripen later we don’t want them to be scorched by hot August days,” Hallstone says. Fortunately, the hot temperatures have only reached the mid to high 90s so far and not over 100 degrees like last year.
While Columbia Farms didn’t get the attendance they wanted, business at Bella Organic was better than expected. Sofia Kondilis Hashem’s family has owned Bella Organic for 18 years; they’ve seen plenty of wet springs, as well as hot ones. “It was busier than normal on a 90 degree day,” said Sofia Kondilis Hashem, “Even though it was hot, it seemed like people wanted to get out and they know that strawberry season is short.”
The roller-coaster of a growing season is one of the most challenging facets of climate change for farmers: It’s not that things are simply getting hotter, but that things are getting unpredictable. While some farmers in the state have adapted by planting things in places where they were previously not viable, that doesn’t account for the sudden drops in temperature in addition to the heat waves. “Calling it global warming was a disservice; it’s really climate change,” says Heather Carpenter, Environmental Studies Lecturer at University of Portland. “The thing that’s going to be hard for farmers is if there are no good bets.”
Fortunately for berry lovers, farmers on Sauvie Island are staying in the game. Hallstone’s family, like many other berry farmers on Sauvie Island, grow early and late varieties of blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and boysenberries to hedge their bets. So even though strawberry season was mostly a bust this year, other berries are still waiting to ripen in the fields and fill u-picker’s baskets. “It’s great to grow berries here,” Hallstone says, “because we can grow a diverse array of crops. So if strawberries don’t work out, then we’ll have marionberries or raspberries.”