Every Saturday, the Daily Press will feature a local vegetable, fruit, flower or food you can find at Santa Monica Farmers Markets.
Sure, you can get strawberries six months out of the year at Santa Monica Farmers Markets.
But February is when you really need them.
The heart-shaped fruit most associated with love, romance and, of course, Valentine’s Day, sells out regularly at McKay Smith’s tables on both Wednesday and Sunday this time of year.
“That’s the trouble with being a farmer. You either have too much or not enough,” Smith said, glancing at the empty table corner where organic strawberries used to sit before a customer picked up the very last carton. “We happen to be in that time period where we don’t have enough.”
Smith’s employees began picking the red berries just before Christmas. By the time plants stop producing in June, Smith’s three farms will have filled nearly 100,000 pint-sized baskets with strawberries. The price fluctuates depending on demand – last week his farm produced about a quarter of what he estimates he could sell.
Each one of those baskets has a paper trail because Smith’s farms are all organically certified. He is always prepared for an audit: tracking every organic seed, fertilizer and bug that creates life on his farms.
“It’s really hard to do organic berries,” Smith said. “It’s definitely not easy.”
Up until 2016, conventional farmers protected their strawberry crops from pests and disease with a ozone depleting chemical called Methyl Bromide. The state officially began phasing out the chemical a decade ago, but conventional strawberry farmers considered it instrumental and fought to keep using it until two years ago. Smith washed his hands of the product back in the 90’s when a personal health scare convinced him to go organic.
“The doctors was saying ‘oh god, your liver enzymes are really high,’” Smith said, “and I couldn’t figure out why and then it dawned on me that I used to spray (pesticides) all the time. Since I switched to organic my liver enzymes are way down and they’re perfectly normal. I don’t know if that’s a coincidence.”
If customers are concerned about their exposure, berries are on the Environmental Working Groups infamous list of the “dirty dozen” fruits and vegetables that contain the most pesticide contamination. The group says 98 percent of strawberries, spinach, peaches, nectarines, cherries and apples they tested had residue of at least one pesticide. A single sample of strawberries showed 20 different pesticides.
When Smith decided to go organic in 1995, he went to his local library and checked out some books on organic gardening. It turned out to be way more complicated than he thought.
“Oh my god, when first did the organic farm, I think we lost half our product to bugs,” Smith said. “It was really, really challenging.”
Now Smith buys predatory mites that eat the aphids and other pests that devour strawberries. He’s out in the fields every week monitoring the battle between good bugs and bad. He’s also part of a pilot program with Fuel Foods, Inc to try innovative pest control measures that are organic and sustainable.
Organic is a lot of work, but he says customers can taste the end result. If the price of organic causes a customer to baulk, he advises them to wait. His crops will peak in April in May, producing bumper crops and driving down the price right when strawberries hit their best flavor.
“They’d save money and they’d be sweeter,” Smith said.
If you’re looking for strawberries to dip into chocolate around Feb. 14, hit the farmers markets early before they sell out. You can find Smith Farms at the Wednesday Downtown Market and Sunday Main Street Market.
Santa Monica has four weekly farmers markets including the Wednesday Downtown market on Arizona Avenue between 4th and Ocean from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., the Saturday Downtown market on Arizona Avenue between 4th and 2nd Streets from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., the Saturday Virginia Ave. Park market at 2200 Virginia Avenue from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., and the Sunday Main Street market at 2640 Main Street from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.