Humbling experience last week when a commercial strawberry grower in the neighbourhood invited us to come and pick our hearts out for a morning before he destroyed his crop. The strawberry harvest has been a bumper this year, so there’s a glut, hence low prices make them uneconomical for our neighbour to pick and send to market. All that planting, tending, watering, watching, growing and blooming – for nothing.
We have luscious fruit for desserts, breakfast bowls, pavlovas, strawberry milkshakes, smoothies, tarts and jam.
We probably won’t again see his stretch of neat rows of ripening strawberry vines when we pass by, more’s the pity for us.
The laws of supply and demand rule in economies and a surplus of commodity for the market wanting to buy it forces prices down. I get that. But I am sick that powerful supermarket chains can dictate abysmally low prices for their suppliers. And am saddened that people see the 90c a punnet prices there and won’t pay $3 or even $2 for the same at smaller outlets, a price which more accurately reflects the sweat and time the crop cost the growers and which they can reasonably expect to deserve.
I hear elsewhere the same is happening for other food like potatoes and carrots; growers of beautiful produce ploughing it back into the soil because picking and getting it to market won’t return their costs, let alone make them a profit.
Someone is sure to comment that the alternative to this free market operative is protectionism, and that does industry efficiency no good in the long term. But I know many people who would gladly pay more than $2 for two litres of milk and $3 or $4 for a punnet of beautiful local strawberries if it kept the farmers in business. The alternative scenario is importing everything cheaper from who knows where and grown under who knows what conditions. That scares me.
But on a happier berry note, our own mulberry tree bore plentifully this year and I beat the marauding birds and flying foxes to the fruit this time. A healthy bowl full transformed into two jars of mulberry jam. I love fresh mulberries, but they are a messy fruit and the juice stains hang about for a while.
I always think of my mother making us strip our backyard tree of fruit when mulberry season came around, because the fruit bats used to feast on it and then poop all over her washing. The unripe specimens must have caused their digestive tracts some upset, because the mess on the sheets and towels on the clothesline was formidable.
Lovely friend and organic fruit tree grower Phil Ryan gave me this hint about keeping the mulberry tree in an attractive umbrella shape and preventing the boughs from getting too tall. I tie bricks or large shards of terracotta to hang off the longer branches, weighing them down and forcing them to grow horizontally rather than vertically. Result is a pleasing shaped tree and I can reach all the fruit without too much stretching.