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Summers blush
Strawberries are ripe for the picking, and local farmers say this year brings a bumper crop
Strawberries fresh from the farm, like these from Dahlonega Vegetable Farm, are great in smoothies, pies or ice cream. - photo by Tom Reed

Juicy, red strawberries are a sure sign that summer is closing in on us.

And right now is the perfect time to go pick some of these delights - and take advantage of an exceptional crop.

"It's huge (this year). Every farmer that I have talked to has just got a heavy cropload and an incredible number of berries on every plant," said John Washington, owner of Washington Farms in Loganville and Watkinsville. "In the fall when the plants are planted, if the weather is warm and the conditions are just right, the plants are actually setting their fruit load in the fall in an embryonic-type stage ... there was nothing to really indicate that we were going to have this type of crop load until February or March."

Washington added that the sign of the large crop was the amount of blossoms that formed in early spring.

Right now is prime berry-picking time, and at Dahlonega Vegetable Farm the crop is expected to hit its peak this weekend.

"We have got a beautiful crop this year," said Ed Patton, owner of Dahlonega Vegetable Farm. "We've got plenty, and they are pretty strawberries; this is as good a crop as we've had in years and years.

The plentiful strawberry crop also has produced very sweet berries for the season.

"The redder they are the sweeter they are," Patton added.

To pick the sweet treats yourself, there is a technique to follow to ensure you don't damage the fruit.

"I usually show people that aren't used to picking strawberries how to pick them without bruising the berry or damaging our vine," Patton said. "We ask everyone to be kind to our plants so they will keep producing."

Also look for berries that are a bright red.

"You just want them red all over with a shiny, red berry," Washington said. "If it's already turned a dark red or a purple color then it is overripe.

"We grow the Chandler berry ... if you are picking Camarosa you want a deeper, darker almost an overripe-looking berry."

Both farmers, who said their farms have been very busy this season, shared their favorite ways to prepare strawberries at home.

Washington keeps it basic: strawberries and pound cake.

"We just like to take a pound cake and chop up some strawberries," he said. "Add a little bit of sugar and let it sit in a bowl for five minutes or so - to make a really good juice - pour it over the pound cake with a big pile of whipped cream or ice cream on top and it doesn't get any better than that. Unless it's homemade strawberry ice cream."

Patton said he drinks most of his strawberries in the winter as a smoothie.

"My wife puts them in the quart freezer bags with a little sugar on them," Patton said. "We open them up in the winter and let it about half way thaw out, put them in a blender and then add vanilla or bananas - or anything with it."

The Georgia Strawberry Festival was held recently in Reynolds, just southwest of Macon. Libby Bond, cook-off chairwoman, passed along one of the winning recipes.

Elliot Farms' Rhonda Hitch's creation, Tipsy Strawberry-Lemon Chess Pie, won first place in the pie division.

The recipe calls for one pie crust filled with a mixture of butter, lemon juice, salt, sugar, cornmeal, cornstarch and eggs. Then the pie is baked until the center is set.

It's topped with a mixture of strawberries, sugar, cornstarch, baking powder and Gran Marnier, which is spread on top.

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