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Originally published Wednesday, June 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Chilly spring delays strawberries, other local produce

The calendar may say summer, but it's still spring to crops confused by this year's unusually cold temperatures and rainy weather. Local strawberries, cherries, lettuce...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Local U-pick farms

For a more exhaustive list of U-pick farms, visit King County's Puget Sound Fresh page at www.pugetsoundfresh.org. Use the find-a-farm guide to search for U-pick farms closest to you. Here are some of the most popular in Southeast King County and beyond:

Berry Patch 27010 78th Ave. S. in Kent, 206-963-5079. U-pick strawberries, raspberries and blueberries.

Canter-Berry Farms 19102 S.E. Green Valley Road in Auburn, 253-939-2706, www.blueberries4u.com. U-pick blueberries and flowers.

Whistling Train Farm 27127 78th Ave. S. in Kent, 253-859-5197, www.whistlingtrainfarm.com. U-pick vegetables available on occasion.

T&M Berry Farm 27405 78th Ave. S. in Kent, 253-859-4193. U-pick strawberries.

Linbo Blueberry Farm 8405 Fruitland Ave. E. in Puyallup, 253-229-6438, linboblueberries.com. U-pick blueberries.

Source: King County

The calendar may say summer, but it's still spring to crops confused by this year's unusually cold temperatures and rainy weather.

Local strawberries, cherries, lettuce, corn and other produce are all behind schedule.

That has strawberry festivals using out-of-state berries, farmers predicting smaller harvests and produce managers juggling suddenly overlapping fruit promotions.

It's the latest harvest Gary Remlinger, of Remlinger Farms in Carnation, has seen in the 40 years that he's grown strawberries. His crop is just now coming ripe when it's usually ready to be picked by mid-June.

"It's unbelievable. It's almost July!" he said. He delayed his farm's annual strawberry festival this year until Father's Day, in hopes that his crop would come through. It didn't, and he was forced to serve strawberries from neighboring states.

Likewise, Everett's Biringer Farm hopes to start offering berries this week after much delay, said owner Dianna Biringer. That's still too late for this weekend's Eastside Heritage Center Strawberry Festival in Bellevue, which will dish up 6,000 pounds of California berries on its shortcakes. There's not time enough to pick, ship, wash and slice local berries, co-coordinator Daniel Gale said.

"We always like to go with Washington berries, but it's hit or miss each year because of the weather," Gale said. The last time the festival was able to use local berries was 2006, he said.

Lucky for U-pick strawberry farm T&M Berries in Kent, most of its crop is Firecracker, a late-season variety of strawberry timed to coincide with all those July Fourth shortcakes. But lack of sun has made them smaller and less red, Maria Breneman said.

East of the Cascades, the cool, wet spring discouraged bees from pollinating fruit trees, and fewer hot, sunny days also slowed their growth, said Andrew Willis of the Washington State Fruit Commission. A smaller crop of local cherries is five to 10 days behind. Peaches and apricots are about a week off schedule. It's not clear whether apples will be affected.

On the bright side, the remaining fruit that survived the spring will benefit from extra nourishment (less competition on the branch) and turn out sweeter and plumper, a boon in export markets, Willis said. Area farmers also have the weak dollar on their side, which could make Washington fruit a better value against foreign competitors.

All told, agriculture represents about 12 percent of the state's economy and generated about $34 billion in revenue in 2006, the most recent figures available from the Department of Agriculture. Apples, wheat and milk are the state's top three commodities.

The spring chill put a damper on plenty of crops.

All that rain delayed farmers from planting the spring wheat crop by two, three and four weeks in some cases, said Glen Squires of the Washington Grain Alliance. Off its normal cycle, that wheat now is thirsty for rain that's no longer falling, which ultimately could affect yields.

Supermarket chain Fred Meyer is seeing delays in all its produce, said Melinda Merrill, company spokeswoman.

"It's everything — leaf lettuces, chard, just because of the wet weather they had to plant late and then the cool weather causes it to grow less quickly," she said.

The delays for early-season crops will mean tough choices for grocers used to selling produce in a regular schedule of cycles, said Joe Hardiman, produce merchandiser for Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets.

"You don't want strawberries to compete against cherries against raspberries. You want them each to have their 15 minutes of fame," he said.

Shoppers also could see gaps with green beans, organic corn from Stanwood's Rents Due Ranch and other local produce since rain prevented some follow-up crop cycles from taking root.

"It's going to be a sad scene when the sun comes out and everyone's expecting things to be back to normal, and we'll have these huge gaps in supply," Hardiman said.

It's not yet clear whether the weather will affect local produce prices, though trade groups and grocers say higher fuel costs likely could boost prices this summer, regardless.

Karen Gaudette: 206-515-5618 or kgaudette@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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