RAMSEUR — For five generations, members of the Beal family have toiled at Kildee Farm, expanding it from a small dairy farm into a 250-acre operation raising cattle and goats and growing corn and tobacco.
Its most prized crop, though, is strawberries.
Owner Michael Beal has been planting more than two and a half acres of strawberries in his family’s fields off Kildee Church Road here for the last 22 years. He says he’s learned a lot over that time about what makes for ideal strawberry conditions to give them the sweetest, juiciest flavor possible.
“I never thought I’d check the weather so much in my life,” he said. “There’s so much technicality that goes into making these berries. People don’t realize how much science and care it takes.”
The best berries, Beal said, come from knowledge about the species of strawberry grown and ensuring proper care from planting to picking: conditions for fertilizing, allowances for heat, and not letting the berries get too waterlogged. Long and hot spring seasons like this year, for example — with minimal rains — create optimal opportunities for the strawberry plants to grow and make for a longer season.
“With conditions like these we can probably easily get six to eight weeks of berries,” Beal said. “I’ve had it be as short as four [weeks] before, but the heat that’s coming in we are going to be rockin’ and rollin’ here soon.”
He said he expects this year’s strawberry season to last until the end of May.
Saturday was Kildee Farm’s opening day for this year’s strawberry season. The intensive and thorough care Beal, his family and his growers have put into these plants was on display; ripe and luscious berries were everywhere, and families delighted at picking choice berries and loading up buckets. Each of the farm’s plants produces about a gallon of berries per year, and the entire field needs to be picked every three days before it begins to rot.
“My grandfather always taught me if you don’t sell it, you’re going to smell it,” Beal said. “So, we need to keep picking once these berries bloom.”
Allison Poremba’s family has been coming to Kildee Farm for more than a decade for these berries. On Saturday, she brought her daughter Berkely for the first time.
“The berries from the grocery store just don’t taste the same,” Poremba said. “We use the berries to make my grandfather’s famous strawberry pudding and for frozen preserves.”
Poremba said hand-picking berries with her daughter makes the taste of her family’s pudding so much sweeter.
Others at the farm, like Magaly Rodriguez, echoed the love of the farm as a family activity.
“Just being out in the sun with my family and getting my fresh produce,” Rodriguez said. “There’s really nothing like it. It’s also so good for our mental health. We come here every year.”
Rodriguez said she had been bringing her children to Kildee since they were 3 years old; every year, each picks two boxes of fresh strawberries from the fields.
Beal said the connections people have with the farm are part of the reason he keeps planting the berries year after year.
“I do all this because I love the people,” he said. “I’ve seen people come here as little kids to pick berries, and now those kids are bringing their kids to come and pick. It doesn’t get better than that.”
There is a familial atmosphere around the farm. Beal’s mother, Marie, runs the stand where pre-picked berries are sold by the gallon, and she also gives people buckets to pick their own. Meanwhile, Beal’s daughter, Ashley, and family volunteers wash out used buckets and give them to families.
Kildee Farm has always been a family operation.
“When it’s in your blood you don’t get rid of it,” he said. “It’s about living up to our slogan: growing memories one berry at a time.”
Beal is also on the board of directors for the North Carolina Strawberry Association, which works to promote strawberry production and marketing and aims to be a voice for strawberry growers at the state and national level.
Beal said being part of the association made him a point person for new growers looking to start their own crop.
“People will call me up and think they can just throw a strawberry in the ground, throw some dirt and water over it — but it’s not that simple,” he said. “I always tell people to start planning 10 months to a year in advance because these suckers take some planning.”
By the time strawberry season is over, Beal estimates he’s responsible for more than half a million strawberry plants across the state. He helps growers with fumigation work, planting and land maintenance. And while he occasionally gets frustrated with ignorance of newcomers to the world of strawberries, Beal said he is happy more farmers are coming on board.
“The important thing is getting fresh produce to the people,” Beal said. “This isn’t just about me or just the farm up the road. All the farmers are in this together to produce the best berries for the people of this state.”
Kildee Farm is open to the public seven days a week for picking while supplies last. Be sure to call the farm at 919-742-5102 prior to arrival for field conditions and availability. For more information about the North Carolina Strawberry Association and to find other strawberry growers near you visit ncstrawberry.com.
Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @b_rappaport.
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