Whidbey strawberry pickers in short supply until school gets out

Tawny Woodworth of Coupeville unveils a good-sized ripe berry

Jerry Bell spotted a clearing in the gray sky and guessed it wouldn’t be long before his body started warming up.

The chill from the nearby Strait of Juan de Fuca was still in the morning air, keeping Bell and the strawberries he watches over from overheating.

“I’m semi-retired, or tired, anyways,” said Bell, 88, one of the founders of Bell’s Farm near Coupeville. “I let the kids do this now.”

“Most of it, anyway.”

Bell spent Thursday morning training Sarah Randall, 19, while customers arrived for the farm’s first day of the U-pick season.

The farm, in operation since 1950, usually doesn’t open for pickers until around Father’s Day, but that trend has changed in recent years.

“Nothing’s normal anymore,” Bell said.

“We always blame it on global warming. The season gets earlier every year, it seems.”

An early berry season makes selling them in containers a challenge because many kids aren’t allowed to start picking until the school year is complete. Several adults were at it Thursday morning to get flats ready for the afternoon’s farmers market in Oak Harbor.

Aside from that, the u-pick field was fair game for all-comers, except for Bucky, a chocolate lab and resident farm dog.

“Hey, you quit picking berries!” Bell said to the dog. “He says, ‘Hey, I only pick the ripe ones.’ ”

The strawberry season at Bell’s Farm is traditionally short and sweet. Bell said he hopes there will be berries to pick through June.

Minors 14 and older can start picking this weekend while kids ages 12 and 13 must wait until the school year is over.

“We do the best that we can,” said Renee Mueller, a partner in the family business along with her husband Frank and their aunt and uncle Jerry and LaVonne Bell. “That’s why we have the u-pick field open sooner than we usually do. We certainly don’t want to lose the berries. If we didn’t open u-pick, we’d be losing berries.”

Strawberries have been growing every year at Bell’s Farm since 1950 with the exception of 1955 when a freeze ruined the crop.

“They’re the best I’ve eaten,” said Steve Boyd of Langley who came to pick the berries for pies, jam and smoothies. “They don’t keep, but they taste the best. And I don’t get them to keep.”

Boyd picked two flats of berries, which at $1.80 per pound, cost him a total of $25.60.

“They taste like the sunshine,” he said.

Just off West Beach Road, the strawberry fields get plenty of that during the growing season on the west side of Whidbey Island. The marine air keeps the temperatures cooler than other parts of the island and allows the berries not to ripen too quickly.

“There’s nothing like a Whidbey Island berry,” Jerry Bell said.

Bell would know. He, some of his siblings and their parents moved across the Cascade Mountains to Whidbey from Wapato in 1946 and soon started a strawberry business that is now in its seventh decade of operation.

The warm, wet winter created a weed problem and some root rot this year that’s been more challenging than others.

“The weeds got ahead of us,” Bell said. “We never got caught up.”

Still, in the grand scheme of things, the weeds are only a mild irritant.

The family is still coming to grips with the first season without Evelyn Mueller, who died May 1 at her home on the farm. Mueller, Bell’s younger sister, was 85 yet until recent years was still an active part of the family business.

Her spirit lives on in her children and grandchildren who help keep the business going.

“She worked out in the field for many, many, many years,” said Renee Mueller, her daughter-in-law. “She was a field boss. She’d sort the berries. She’d help plant berries. It was a huge part of her life.”

Bell’s Farm is located at 892 West Beach Road. The farm also sells other produce at a stand on-site and berries on a roadside stand along Highway 20 in Oak Harbor. Their strawberries also are generally available at the Oak Harbor and Coupeville farmers markets.