Prime time for pickin': Strawberries ready this week at Hazeltine's

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Shelly Birkelo
Monday, June 24, 2013

— Margaret Lechowska's family got up at 4 a.m. and drove two hours from Chicago on Sunday morning so they could pick fresh strawberries at Hazeltine's Century Farm.

“This is our second year here to pick up good stuff. We do Jell-O and jam,” she said as she picked and tossed the red fruit into a pail that sat between rows of acres of strawberry plants.

Lechowska, her husband, two daughters and three cousins and their families hoped to spend two hours picking a total of 36 pails of berries.

“We plan to pick 12 to 13 buckets for each family,” she said.

That didn't surprise Hazeltine's co-owner Wendy Nelson, who said it's common for people to travel from Chicago to their Highway 11 West farm to pick strawberries on weekends.

A bold sign, easily visible from the road, lets passersby know the strawberries are at the peak of their season.

Picking started June 11.

“It's prime picking right now and will be good all this week,” Wendy said.

This year's crop is much better than the one last year, when growers dealt with a warm spell in March that caused plants to sprout early, only to be killed later by frost.

Wendy described the 2012 strawberry season as “mediocre” due to the dry, hot weather.

Although Hazeltine's plants produced many berries last year, they were smaller, “so we didn't get yield in tonnage,” she said.

This season's more typical spring allowed the berries to ripen and grow naturally to a larger size, Wendy said.

The end result: “A fabulous and fantastic” berry patch, she said.

Hazeltine's didn't lose any plants last year.

“They come back,” Wendy said.

Visitors have five new acres of strawberry beds to pick from this year, and Hazeltine's planted 3.5 new acres for next year.

The hope is for the season to last four weeks from the start.

“It's peak time, and all the fields are ripening now,” Wendy said.

“We're on day 13, so we're halfway through. Now and in the next three to four days, there will be tons of berries ready and ripe to be picked,” Wendy said.

A steady flow of customers between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. has been coming and going from Hazeltine's.

“It's been packed, and last Wednesday, we almost had a record-breaking day in sales,” Wendy said.

By the end of the 28-day season, Wendy said 2013 will be a good strawberry season.

“But we don't know yet if it'll be the best,” she said.

Yet customers are bragging to her that it is.

“One of our customers who has been with us 35 years just said, 'I think this is the best crop ever,'” Wendy said.

Lechowska's husband, Bogdan, agreed: “They're bigger for sure."

Last updated: 8:00 am Monday, July 29, 2013

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