BLOUNT COUNTY - Recent warm weather is bringing an early start to the strawberry growing season statewide.
Steve Rutherford has been growing strawberries for more than 40 years, and said he's never seen strawberry plants this far along in early March. He pointed to some green berries already formed on the plant.
Up to now, the earliest he's ever seen ripe berries has been early April.
"This year, I think we could be in season before the end of March, maybe," he said.
Below-freezing temperatures are coming, however, which could kill unprotected strawberry blossoms, thus killing the entire strawberry.
"Strawberry plants are subject to cold weather damage," he told WBIR 10News Thursday. "Freezing is technically 31.7 degrees. If the temperature drops below that around these blooms - and the blooms are out - it will cause the cells inside the bloom to burst, and thus the bloom turns black and we have no berries."
The 40,000 strawberry plants on 2.5 acres of Rutherford's Blount County farm are protected by fabric row covers.
That protection, however, can only go so far.
"The row cover we have on the berries right now will give us 7 or 8 degrees safety net, so that if it gets down to 24, 25 degrees, we should be okay," he said.
Below that though, Rutherford would have to add more cover to his 2.5 acres of strawberries, which is a long, labor-intensive process.
With the rollercoaster temperatures that March can bring, Rutherford also has to worry about heat.
"In the 70s, we're going to pull the row cover back because we don't want that extra heat in there," he said, adding that too much heat can cause the strawberry plants to stop producing berries and transition into their reproductive phase.
If the weather agrees, Rutherford said the picking season could be extended by a couple of weeks.
About three-quarters of his strawberry crop is pick-your-own, he said, and peak picking season may come earlier this year due to the warm weather. People can follow Rutherford's Farm berry picking schedule online, on Twitter and on Facebook.
He said pruning the vines is what causes them to start growing.
"We're going to wait just a little bit on these because they could not endure a hard frost," Butcher said, standing beside some of his younger vines.
"It's been a very strange weather pattern for us," Butcher said. "Typically, we don't start pruning our grapes until the end of March, but, you know, with everything coming out now, we have to weigh whether to start pruning now and risk a late frost or continue to wait."
He and Rutherford may grow different fruit, but both are keeping their eyes on the forecast.
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