Cut to the Chase: Pursuit of a better berry

Associate Editor

DAVIDSONVILLE, Md. (May 9, 2017) — It’s the second year of strawberry production at Chase Produce, and Bob Chase said he’s hoping for better results this year.
Last year, early, unceasing spring rains destroyed half of his crop.
This year, losses due to unexpectedly warm February weather and subsequent freezing are at about 10 percent, he said.
“I hope to get at least three-quarters at the moment,” he said. “Of course, if it starts to rain for a week solid, that’ll be a problem too. ... We’ll find out in the next few weeks. It’s a lot of work, but there should be a lot of financial rewards.”
It’s part of a difficult start for a new enterprise — a u-pick strawberry operation — at Chase Produce as it continues to evolve in Anne Arundel County’s agricultural market.
The Chase family has been a stalwart of local produce production and roadside sales for decades, first through the parents of Bob Chase’s wife, Margie.
They’ve watched the tendencies of customers change over the years, Bob Chase said, and decided to start a u-pick strawberry operation because it’s a high-value crop that further diversifies their 77-acre operation mostly dedicated to summertime vegetables and field corn or soybeans.
That was particularly important since his produce revenue has declined since the Great Recession, he said.
He’s noticed an uptick in the number of residents interested in picking their own strawberries.
Anne Arundel County used to have four u-pick operations in the 1960s and ’70s, he said, though they disappeared after an initial u-pick “craze” died, he said.
But residents in their 30s and 40s, he said, are more interested in food than the generation before them — even if they’re even more removed from the family farm.
They’re more interested in where and how the food is grown, he said.
His berries aren’t certified organic, but he doesn’t use fungicides, which seems to be a selling point.
However, if he loses a significant chunk of his crop this year to mold or other issues, he said he may have to shift course.
“The 30-something crowd (is) always curious what you spray on them,” he said. “You get a smile when you can say you don’t spray anything at all.”
The Chases started last year with about 1.5 acres of strawberries and have boosted production to about 2 to 2.5 acres, Bob Chase said.
They grow Chandler, Flavorfest and Allstar berries in a plasticulture system.
He said he’s partial to the Flavorfest variety, which was developed two years ago in the USDA’s Agriculture Research Service breeding program in Beltsville.
It’s well adapted to the Mid-Atlantic region and resistant to anthracnose fruit rot, but its defining feature is its flavor.
“I think they’re much sweeter,” Bob Chase said. “They’re a nicer-tasting berry.”
But the business isn’t without its challenges. Consumers are purchasing less than they used to, particularly since the recession.
Decades ago, it wasn’t uncommon for a family to buy up to 20 to 30 bushels of sweet corn. Now, families are smaller. He sees fewer children in the cars. It’s not uncommon for a customer to buy just an ear.
There are also more farmers markets around, and consumers seem increasingly health-conscious.
“People’s eating habits have changed. It’s a generational thing,” he said. “I hear a lot of ‘in moderation’.”
But their interest in food is creating a market, he said.
“The 30- to 40-something crowd wants to come out and pick now,” he said. “American people got lazy. Now, the 30- to 40-something crowd, they’re a little more ambitious. Most of them are surprised with the amount of money and time it takes to farm.”