May 2018
The Magic of Gardening

Time to Celebrate Strawberry Season

The strawberry, or erdbeeren, as the German settlers called it, has a long and illustrious history in Alabama.

 

In Cullman’s strawberry heyday, they were harvesting 2,200 acres and had become known as the “Strawberry-Producing Capital of Alabama.” Many factors had a part in the decline of strawberry acreage over the years, dropping to 500 and currently revived to about 1,000.

The early German settlers in my hometown of Cullman called strawberries "erdbeeren," or literally "earth berry." One of the first of the German settlers in Cullman, Andrew Kessler, may have brought the first strawberry plants in 1880. In 1886, during a ball and picnic to commemorate the founding of Cullman, John Cullmann toasted the recent discovery of coal, the exploration for oil and the hoped-for arrival of an east-west railroad, along with the success of local ventures in wine, strawberry and cotton production.

The success with wine was short-lived due to a disease problem that still prevents most European wine grapes from growing in our area. However, first cotton and later strawberry production took off in a big way. Cullman County became a leader in both commodities.

Large-scale strawberry production had to wait on a means of refrigeration to allow for distant shipping via rail cars. However, by 1936, Cullman was harvesting 2,200 acres of strawberries and had become the strawberry-producing capital of Alabama if not the entire south. This acreage held steady until World War II caused a labor shortage and the acreage fell to about 500. By 1947, acreage started to climb back to near 1,000 acres and never got above that level again.

During the strawberry heyday, Cullman held a very large annual strawberry festival that brought folks from all over north Alabama to celebrate the harvest season each spring. When acreage began to fall, the festival was stopped. This time a combination of factors likely led to the industry’s decline: competition from Florida, labor and the rise of the poultry industry that provided a more secure income with less risk.

Morgan Brannon loves strawberries. When they are ripe, you can find her in a strawberry patch. Morgan is the niece of Mike Reeves, Morgan County Extension coordinator.

 
   
   

Several years ago, local officials decided to resurrect the Cullman Strawberry Festival. Even though we will likely never have the large acreages we had in my grandfather’s day, we do have several local producers who grow strawberries to sell.

This winter has been very cold, but most area growers covered their plants with a blanketlike material that fairly well protected them. The crop potential looks good and, barring any really late freezes, they should harvest a good crop of the sweet erdbeerens.

This year’s festival will take place May 5 at Festhalle Market Platz Farmers Market in downtown Cullman near the railroad line that once shipped thousands of crates of berries annually. The festival plays host to many activities, including a vintage car show, live music and plenty of local-grown strawberries.

There will also be a wonderful assortment of local artisans and crafters selling their wares at an arts and crafts event in Depot Park, across from the farmers market.

Cullman County Museum will be open, just walk across the parking lot to the historic reproduction of the Colonel Johann Cullmann Home.

Strawberry season in Alabama is literally short and sweet, so be sure to get out and support the hard-working strawberry growers in your communities. Many communities across Alabama have strawberry festivals; look for one of them and support your local farmers. Those communities farther south had their festivals in April when strawberries were at their peak in their respective areas.

Moulton has a strawberry festival May 4-5 on their downtown square.

However, if you are close enough to Cullman, please come, enjoy the festival and take home some sweet, local berries.

If you live a little too far away, try to find some local strawberries before the season passes you by. You may visit this website to find area farms and markets: http://www.fma.alabama.gov.

To get more details about the Cullman Strawberry Festival, visit their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/CullmanStrawberryfest.

 

Tony A. Glover is a County Extension Coordinator in Cullman County.