Big Business, Small Farms, and Sweet Strawberries

Learn more about what our local strawberry farmers face.

On a pristine Upper Valley back road, by a rolling river, Anne and Pooh Sprague say they can’t imagine their business, Edgewater Farm, thriving without the Co-op. The feeling is mutual. 

Edgewater sits on 170 acres of rich farmland on the plains of the Connecticut River Valley. It’s one of more than 250 local and regional food producers that supply the Co-op throughout the year. 

This time of year, the star of the local growing season is strawberries, an Edgewater specialty and a challenging crop to grow.

June weather in New England is notoriously mercurial. In June in the Upper Valley, daytime temperatures may be in the 90s, or they may be in the 50s. Nighttime conditions may be warm and humid, or cold enough to threaten crops.

No matter the weather, before lunch, the folks at Edgewater will harvest hundreds of quarts of strawberries, delivering them to the Co-op daily.

Pretty sweet, right? Literally. But behind every quart of strawberries, there are many challenges faced by our local growers.

The Business of Strawberries

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Anne and Pooh Sprague

Strawberry season runs for a short , but intense, three to four weeks. In late summer, Co-op shoppers will find blueberries, cantaloupe, field-grown tomatoes, and peppers from Edgewater Farm, but in June the farm is primarily dedicated to strawberries.

Pooh and Anne have been raising strawberries along the shady banks of the Connecticut River since 1974. Over time, the operation grew to include other summer fruits and vegetables, as well as extensive greenhouse and pick-your-own options. Pooh and Anne are quick to credit the farm’s success to their farm workers, seasonal pickers, and to the Co-op members and customers.

“The Co-op has been a real asset to small farmers such as ourselves.” —Pooh Sprague, Edgewater Farm

Much has changed since Pooh and Anne started in 1974. Strawberry growers face challenges today like never before:

Domestic Competition

California is the largest supplier of strawberries in the United States, and Florida is a close second. These are large states with huge factory farm operations, deep pockets, and the power to control massive agricultural markets. Many small local family farms in other parts of the country find it difficult to compete.

International Competition

As if domestic competition wasn’t enough, now there’s Mexico.

In the United States, the rate of imported strawberries doubled between 2003 and 2009, and doubled again between 2009 and 2012. In 2012, strawberry imports reached a record 351 million pounds. The imports are almost exclusively from Mexico, and the import rates continue to climb. 

Strawberry imports from Mexico have depressed the market price and squeezed the market share of domestic strawberries, a situation that grows tighter each year as Mexico expands its production capacity.

Regulation

Worker protection standards, labor wages, water management, and food-safety issues are just a few of the areas in which strawberry growers must ensure their operations meet federal and state regulations. These regulations are designed to protect the workers, consumers, and the environment.

Abuses on large factory farms are the driving force behind most regulations. And yet, since regulations are often the same across the board, small farms with fewer resources must comply with the same costly laws as their large competitors. In recent years, facing federal requirements has been one of the biggest demands on growers.

Volatile prices

Strawberry prices are highly volatile, due to the perishable nature of the product, unpredictable weather, and large price fluctuations in the global market.

Weather

Strawberries are very sensitive to weather conditions. The extreme weather of recent years, such as freak, intense storms and unusually high and low temperatures, can cause significant losses for growers.

Learn More

Thankfully, farms like Edgewater are willing to tackle the challenges and bring their delicious strawberries to us! Edgewater Farm strawberries are a seasonal favorite among Co-op members and customers. Look for them in our stores, and if you have questions, feedback, or want to learn more, we’d love to hear from you! Contact us at comment at coopfoodstore dot com. 

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Ken Davis

Ken Davis

Ken is a writer in the Co-op Outreach Department. Email him at kdavis@coopfoodstore.com.