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Annual Strawberry Festival

The Annual Strawberry Festival celebrates the sweeter heritage of the Northern Neck

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Customers show off boxes of strawberries purchased at the annual festival in Heathsville.

by Lisa Hinton-Valdrighi

For over a century, strawberry lovers have flocked to Heathsville, not to a pick-your-own farm or produce market but to St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church’s annual festival where strawberries, by the truckload, are devoured with shortcake and whipped topping and sold by the quart.

“This festival actually started in 1881,” said Ellen Kirby, who along with her husband, Bill, are organizers of this year’s festival.

“Back then, it was more like an ice cream social but it was a strawberry social,” she said. “Over the years, it has grown quite large.”

The festival was held on and off for nearly 100 years until it was finally resumed for good in the 1970s. It has been held annually on Memorial Day weekend for the past 40 years.

Since then the festival has become as much of a community event as a church fund raiser, said Kirby.

When the Episcopal church congregation split several years ago, the Anglicans continued to sponsor the festival, until recently when the courts declared the church and its surrounding property belonged to the Episcopal Church. Rumors the festival would not be held this year quickly spread.

“We’ve had a lot of phone calls,” said Kirby. “People in the community asked what we were going to do about the strawberry festival. One woman, a vendor, even called crying. This was one of her best shows and she was really going to miss it.

“To us, it’s not as much about a St. Stephen’s event as it is a community event,” she added.

The festival includes more than 100 arts and crafts vendors and draws some 3,500 people to the grounds around St. Stephen’s Protestant/Episcopal Church on Northumberland Highway in Northumberland’s county seat. 

But, of course, the big draw is the red, juicy fruit.

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The St. Stephen’s Strawberry Festival, sponsored this year by the St. Stephen’s Protestant/Episcopal Church, includes more than 100 vendors and draws some 3,500 people.

Some 1,400 quarts of fresh berries will be furnished for this year’s festival May 26 by Garner’s Produce near Warsaw.

The truck will arrive Friday night and volunteers will work diligently to cap hundreds of berries for strawberry shortcakes. The delicious red fruit is spooned onto homemade shortcakes and topped with whipped cream. It’s a crowd favorite and is usually sold out by lunchtime.

The strawberries, sold by the quart or crate, also are usually sold out well before noon, said Kirby. Customers arrive early for them.

The festival opens at 9 a.m. and closes at 3 p.m. and “we’re usually out of berries by 11 a.m.,” said Kirby. “You’ve got to get there early if you want them.”

This year, food will be provided by non-profit organizations instead of the St. Stephen’s congregation. The Northumberland County YMCA and Mid-County Volunteer Rescue Squad, along with a Relay for Life team from the Northumberland treasurer’s office will sell food. St. Stephen’s will hold a bake sale in conjunction with the grand re-opening of its thrift shop, St. Stephen’s Trifles and Treasures.

Proceeds from the strawberry festival benefit the St. Stephen’s outreach program, primarily its water ministry.

“This event takes everybody in the church and volunteers from other churches and the community,” said Kirby.  “But I’m so thrilled with the excitement that surrounds it.”

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Grow-your-own strawberries
If buying strawberries at a produce stand or farm isn’t appealing, try growing some.

It’s not as hard as you think, according to Stacey Whaley in the greenhouse at Farm & Home Supply in Kilmarnock.

The climate and growing season on Virginia’s east coast is ideal for berry growing.

Whaley recommends the Everbearing variety, which means “you’ll get them all summer long.”

Although Everbearing strawberry plants typically call for a spring and fall harvest, Whaley says “you may pick them twice but you will get some here and there all summer.”

For the novice strawberry grower, space the berry plants 18 to 20 inches apart and plant rows three to four feet apart because the plants produce runners.

“When they put off new shoots you can actually pinch them off and re-plant them,” said Whaley.

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A truckload of juicy, red strawberries will be available for purchase at the annual St. Stephen’s Strawberry Festival in Heathsville on May 26.

New plants should be watered frequently, while mature plants can usually survive drier soil.

For those without a lot of garden space, strawberries can thrive in large pots. However, said Whaley, don’t expect them to spread.

To protect the plants from cold and frost, heavy mulching with straw is recommended. But don’t forget to remove the straw when warmer temperatures return or the plants will suffocate, she said.

Pick-your-own strawberries
The best strawberries are fresh off the vine.

They just taste sweeter. They’re plump and juicy with a hint of dirt. And there is something special about picking your own fruit straight from the stem.

When I was a little girl my grandmother had her own strawberry patch and I remember while she, my aunt and my mom picked, I’d plop down in the middle of the vines and enjoy. I’m sure I ate a quart or two at each picking.

And although the local pick-your-own-farms don’t endorse eating a whole quart while picking, they do expect a nibble here and there. They’re just too darn tempting not to bite.

At Melville Farms on Northumberland Highway in Lotts­burg, owners Mike and Kristie Bryant encourage a taste test.

“You have to test them,” said Kristie. “I tell people that all the time. You’ve got to know what you’re getting.”

Melville Farms has about an acre of strawberries for customers to pick. That’s down from other years when the couple has offered eight to ten acres of berries.

Picking should begin any day now, said Kristie, but the harvest season primarily begins the first week of May and runs four weeks.

“A good season is six weeks,” she said. “But we very seldom get six weeks. It’s usually four.”

Strawberries, picked by the customer, are sold by the pound, instead of by the pints, quarts or box.

“It’s really the fairest way,” said Kristie.

During the season, Melville Farms is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. 

To make sure they are picking, call 529-6522 or 804-450-6522.

Westmoreland Berry Farm, on Berry Farm Lane off Route 3 near Oak Grove, is open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays during harvest time. It will offer pick-your-own strawberries from the first week of May through mid-June.

When arriving at the farm, check in for picking at the store counter.

Strawberries are sold pre-picked by the quart and sold as a pick-your-own item by the pound.

The expansive 1600-acre farm includes a 700-acre nature conservancy and acres upon acres of fruit trees and plants.

The farm offers pick-your-own raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, peaches, asparagus and whatever else is in season. Along with the pick-your-own produce, the farm has a market where items made from the fruits are sold and a cafe. 

Tuesdays through Thursdays, the farm offers 15% off pick-your-own items.

Call the farm at 1-800-997-2377.

posted 04.25.2012

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