Ripe and ready: Cape Elizabeth farms rely on strawberries to fuel interest
CAPE ELIZABETH — The strawberries are on schedule this year.
It might not seem like a big deal, but in recent years strawberries – and other crops farmed in Cape Elizabeth – have been less than predictable.
In 2012, for instance, an unseasonably warm spring caused strawberries to blossom in March and ripen long before the annual festival that's named for them.
This year, however, is different. The berries are peaking just in time for the fifth Strawberry Festival, a two-day event that combines the fruit and farming with food and music.
The festival begins with a pig roast and lobster bake at 6 p.m. Friday, June 28, at Shady Oak Farm, on Fowler Road. Tickets are $30 and were nearly sold out by Wednesday; only about a dozen were still available at Alewives Brook Farm on Old Ocean House Road.
On Saturday, the event continues at Maxwell's Farm on Two Lights Road, with food and art vendors, musical acts, kids' activities and, of course, strawberry picking.
The fields at Maxwell's Farm were bustling Wednesday with hundreds of people crouching along the tight, hay-lined rows of strawberry bushes. Meanwhile, at the edge of the field, farm owner Bill Bamford sat in his pickup truck and talked about the season.
"It was a pretty normal spring," Bamford said, with a hint of surprise in his voice. "It was cooler than last year, but last year was too hot."
In 2012, Bamford's strawberry crops were nearly gone by the start of the festival. This year looks better, he said, with rows upon rows of bushes adorned with plump, red berries; however, Bamford stopped short of calling the season an all-out success.
"You never know until it's over," he cautioned.
The Strawberry Festival is planned each year for the last weekend in June, which, under normal conditions, coincides with the peak of the season.
Penny Jordan, owner of Jordan's Farm on Wells Road, agreed that 2013 has been remarkable for its normalcy.
"Over the past two years we got used to things coming in early," she said.
The timely arrival of fruits and vegetables is important to farmers, Jordan said.
Ideally, each crop matures and ripens on a particular week, and doesn't conflict with the ripening of another crop. For instance, strawberries normally ripen in late June and peak on July 4, which coincides with the arrival of vacationers. About a week later, peas start coming into season.
"They get strawberries at the beginning of their vacation and peas at the end of it," Jordan said. "The farms get to capture that energy when everybody is out and about."
Later in July, after the peas peter out, the corn is ready.
In an ideal season, this pattern repeats itself over and over until November, with each crop arriving in sequence like train cars arriving at a station. The timing helps farmers market their crops to retailers, she said.
"This is what farmers pray for," Jordan said. "Simple things."
The Strawberry Festival is a way for Cape Elizabeth farmers to begin the new farming season and get noticed, said Jordan, who is also the chairwoman of the Cape Elizabeth Farm Alliance, a group that strives to maintain the viability of farms in the area and sponsors the annual event.
Farmers within the alliance pitch in for the festival, particularly the pig roast and lobster bake on Friday, in hopes that it will "become one of the premier events in Cape Elizabeth that everyone wants to go to," Jordan said.
Then on Saturday, many farms host pick-your-own-strawberry events to show off their spreads.
"If you get people driving around and visiting the other farms, they're seeing the value that farms bring as safe, reliable, local food sources," she said. "It's not just about a strawberry event. It's about farming as a year-round proposition. We try to bring Maine food to people 12 months out of the year."
As for next year's crop, it's anyone's guess whether the strawberries will be on time, but Jordan made a sturdy prediction. It's an adage she learned from her brother:
"All you can say about the next season is, 'It's going to be different from this one.'"