Georgia's strawberry crop is in. Don't let the recent food scare keep you from picking and eating these scrumptious specimens.
"The Georgia strawberry crop is one of the most sanitary crops I know of," said Gerard Krewer, a University of Georgia Extension Service horticulturist in Tifton. "It's drip-irrigated with drinking-quality water, and a layer of plastic separates the berries from the soil, eliminating the risk of soil-borne illness."
The soil and fertilizer used on the crop also make it safer.
"The fertilizer used on strawberries is commercial dry fertilizer, not manure," said Butch Ferree, an extension horticulturist in Fort Valley. "The first round of fertilizer is usually plowed into the soil in the fall, and more is added to the irrigation system in the spring. Soil low in organic matter produces the best strawberries, so it's properly treated before the berries are even planted."
Despite these precautions, animals passing through a field, or mishandled berries, could still cause a health problem. Sanitation care in the kitchen, and at every step in food handling, is required.
"Whether it's industry, pick-your-own or the family garden, poor sanitation can cause problems," said Judy Harrison, an extension food safety specialist. "Using clean hands and clean, properly stored containers for the product are important, regardless of the crop or who is picking it."
Harrison says to remove any badly bruised or moldy strawberries. Place the rest in a single layer in a clean container covered with wax paper in the refrigerator. Cap and wash thoroughly with drinking water just before using.
"You can best wash strawberries by placing them in a colander and spraying them with water," Harrison said.
The prime picking time for Georgia strawberries is now.
"The crop usually begins coming in in mid-March and lasts until early June," Krewer said. "We're a little early this year due to the warm weather."
The weather has also made this a banner year for Georgia strawberries.
"We had some problems around Savannah because the warm weather between Christmas and New Year's forced some of the plants to bloom early," Ferree said. "But this dry weather has brought us superb quality."
No matter where you live in the state, you should be able to find a fresh supply of Georgia-grown strawberries.
"Our crop is scattered all over the state," Krewer said. "We don't have exact acreage figures on the crop, but we do know they are very productive, yielding about 15,000 to 20,000 pounds per acre."
They're a tasty crop, too, Ferree said.
"The variety usually seen in grocery stores is Chandler, and it was practically made for the Georgia climate," he said. "If you pick your own, they are more mature and even fresher."
Take advantage of this limited-time offering of fresh Georgia- grown strawberries. Don't let the recent scare scare you off.
"It comes at a very bad time for us," Krewer said, "because it gives the wrong impression. But we have a very good crop this year. And the combination of clean, drinking-quality water used for irrigation, strictly using dry commercial fertilizer and the plastic shield between the berries and the soil make it an outstanding, clean crop."
(Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)