Offbeat in the Strawberry Fields

May 2, 2004--Posted at 10:00 p.m. CDT

NEWPORT, AR--For most farmers in Region 8 this is planting season, but for some it's harvest time. Down in Jackson County the vines are heavy with the big red berries. It might not look like much from the road, but Bill Landreth's strawberry patch is plum.

"Right now it's the best looking crop," says Landreth. "The berries are bigger, the color in em's good and if the weather cooperates.  Yes, we've had crops with as many berries, but these are the best looking berries I've had in 5 years."

Of course to get these plump and juicies that way takes quite an effort. Landreth's got 7 acres of strawberries and he put 17,500 strawberry plants into each acre back in September. Over the next few weeks, Bill's field will yield close to 200 thousand pounds of strawberries...

But how do you know when they're ripe.

"When they turn red.  It's just that simple," says Landreth.  "And we don't pick till they're vine ripe cause that's where the flavor comes in and we're after quality.  You probably noticed the guys will turn the berries over and there's a pinkish whiteish spot and that berry's not ripe and they leave that berry till tomorrow.  They look at the shape and size so we can cull them as we go."

That means, every day for more than two months somebody's gonna be hunched over Bill's Best Berries.

"It's a low down job, but those guys make good money and they're good workers," says Landreth.  "We start pickin every morning at six until noon, cause in the afternoon the berry gets the heat in it and the berry will be soft."

The plump juicy berries go straight from the vine and into Bill's Best containers for $2.50 per pound.  Or you can do it the old fashioned way and pick them yourself for a buck and you get to keep the bucket.

You can stop by any one of 8 Bill's Arkansas Fresh stands around Newport, or pick some up at Walmart.  Bill's Best Berries are featured at 15 area supercenters this year and at some USA Drugs.