By Lauren Wanko
It’s opening day at Specca Farms Pick Your Own strawberry patch and customers aren’t wasting any time filling up their baskets.
“Just tasty and you see it on the vine, you go and you pick it. Oh that’s good. This is good,” said James Ellerbe of Philadelphia.
Within the sprawling patch is a test plot filled with the Rutgers Scarlet Strawberry.
“Because direct marketing is so important in New Jersey what we found the need to develop a product that has more flavor and will produce better under our environmental conditions,” said Bill Hlubik of the Rutgers Cooperative Extension.
The Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station began the project about 10 years ago. It was developed through a traditional cross breeding program.
“What we do is cross flower with another, we take those seeds, we grow those seeds out and from those seeds we can get hundreds of plants. Then we select only the best,” Hlubik said.
Hlubik says many of the strawberries grown out of state are bred for shipping so they may lack flavor. But the Rutgers berries are developed to be picked right from the vine, maximizing the flavor and freshness.
“You don’t want a pure sugar and you don’t want pure acid, but you want a good sugar/acid balance along with volatile chemicals and you get a much better tasting strawberry,” he said.
Taste-testing was a major component of the project.
“There’s been hundreds of fruit, thousands tasted and lots done to look at the flavor,” said Pete Nitzsche of Rutgers Cooperative Extension.
Thirteen farms throughout the state are growing the Scarlet Strawberry and at Specca Farms the fruit is just beginning to ripen so customers will be able to start picking by next week just in time to eat.
Over the next couple of years the Rutgers Scarlet Strawberry will be available statewide at participating farms.
So as my grandfather would say, you pick one and you eat one right away?
“You try to eat it in the next couple of days,” Nitzsche said.
Farm Manager Stephen Specca is a fourth generation farmer.
“The Rutgers variety trials bring out new customers to our farm and gives us an edge over the competition,” he said.
“Buying local is important to me as a farmer because it keeps the local economy vibrant and at the same time it’s also a big benefit to consumers because they’re able to come and pick produce that’s really fresh, has really great flavor,” said farm owner David Specca.
The Experiment Station is developing another five different varieties that will be released in the coming years. Strawberry season lasts through June, but there’ll still be a chance to buy the Rutgers Scarlet Strawberry plant at the Cooperative Extension’s Earth Center toward the end of the summer.