ELKTON — The 43rd year of picking strawberries at Walnut Springs Farm is also the last because the owners — Phil and Ruth Ann Johnson — are retiring from the fruit-growing business.
The black raspberry picking is also in its final season, but the blueberry operation, under the guidance of their niece Jen Arter, will continue, according to Phil.
It’s just the right time, he explained.
When he started, Phil said he did all the work, planting 10 acres of plants that would, in due season, explode with ripe red berries.
“I took care of them by myself,” he said as he watched the you-pick fields fill up on a recent morning with customers eager to load their cardboard baskets.
Now it’s just 4 acres, but it has been planted with the help of machinery in a method he learned while he was director of the North American Strawberry Growers Association.
“By being director, I had to go on tours. I toured strawberry farms all over the country,” he said, noting the largest operations are in California and Florida. “The system we used originated in California.”
It was a one-year system in which plants were tucked into the ground in August and tended over the many months until harvest. Johnson said it was a very productive system.
Mandy Surek wholeheartedly agreed.
“These are the most delicious strawberries I’ve ever had,” the Pike Creek, Del., woman said. “They are amazing.”
On this day she brought her children, 4-year-old Grace and 2-year-old Tripp, to help her pick. His chin dripping with red juice, Surek was certain Tripp had not put too many of the berries in the basket.
Erin Smith said she also enjoys the annual trip to Walnut Springs farm off Blue Ball Road each year. Upon hearing the news of the owners’ retirement, the Chadds Ford, Pa., woman said she was saddened.
Pat Fenlon worked her way down a row marked with a flag for picking.
“These are nice and plump and red,” Fenlon, from Newark, Del., said. “I’ve been coming here for years. I forget how many.”
Upon hearing that this would be the final year, Fenlon commented, “I’m glad we got out here.”
“It’s the end of an era,” said Ruth Ann Johnson, adding that she would miss seeing multiple generations of families picking together. “It’s sad.”
Picking is scheduled according to the strawberries, so check the Walnut Springs Facebook page or go to strawberryfarm.com for the best information. This week the proposed schedule is 8 a.m. to noon Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.