Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Tasty Bytes of Local Strawberries

As published in the Citizen-Record newspaper on July 15, 2015 by Sara Jewell.

Mackenzie Mattinson sells strawberries at the Oxford Berry Farm's roadside stand in Oxford.

Ah, the idyllic days of strawberry season.
The early morning sun shines on your back as you kneel between the rows of plants, fingers seeking the firm, ripe berries. The berries are sweet and plump, and red juice runs down your chin when you bite into one, having snuck a taste of that marks summer’s true arrival.
Or maybe it’s my memories that are idyllic.
“The bugs are bad and it gets hot,” 15-year-old Taylor Mattinson says.
But picking berries for five hours every morning certainly hasn’t made her sick of them. When I arrive at my great-niece’s house for an interview, she’s eating sliced strawberries from a big bowl.
Can’t get enough of that taste of summer.
Taylor, and her twin sister Mackenzie, are pickers, two in a long line – literally – of teenagers working at Cindy Thompson’s ten acres of strawberry fields just outside Oxford. And just like those kids, strawberry picking is now high-tech.
Taylor describes the difference between her experience two years ago and now.
“You picked your strawberries then you set them behind you. When you were done, you collected them all into your flats and set them at the end of your row. Then you said how many you picked,” she says. “Now, when you finish two flats, you go to the supervisor and she has a scanner and stickers. You have a picker card with a bar code so she scans the card and a sticker and then they put the sticker on the flat.”
According to Cindy Thompson, it’s all about accountability and traceability.
“A berry doesn’t get to market without me knowing where it comes from,” she says of the computer software and equipment that allows her to track every level of the operation. “On my end, the sticker tells me what time the flat was picked, who picked it, what field it was picked in and what variety of strawberry was picked. It’s the way everything is going. You have to accountable for what you sell.”
What a difference from when the picking at their new strawberry fields started in 2011, and from when she was a teenager picking berries on the same farm.
“When we started out, we just had punch cards, same as what we did growing up,” Cindy says. “They brought the flat down and you punched card but once that went on the truck and left, you didn’t know whose was whose and what was what.”
The demand for traceability is the way of the world, she says, but it also allows her to monitor the quality of her product. If she receives a comment about too many green berries or praise for really good berries, she can take that information right back to the picker.
“That lets me offer quality with accountability to the pickers. It means they can’t get away with anything.”
That doesn’t bother Mackenzie Mattinson. “I think it’s a good idea,” she says. “That way the farm doesn’t get as much of the blame if something goes wrong. It means a lot of responsibility for me, the picker, but it’s fair.”
This is the first year for the scanner system at Cindy’s farm but the bigger farms have been using them for a while.
“Farming isn’t what it used to be for any farmer,” Cindy tells me. “I haven’t used the computer program for long but I’m at the point where I can say it’s making my job easier. It was a crash course to learn it and I’m learning it on the fly but I like it.”
And she’ll get a lot of use out of it. She, along with her husband Kent, also planted ever-bearing strawberries using a black plastic system that draws and traps heat to create a longer growing season.
“Once we’re done with our July strawberries, people don’t have to go back to a Florida or California strawberry,” explains Cindy. “We’ll have local berries right up to frost.”

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