A Spring Salute to the Strawberry

Buckets of berries: Head out to Haywood County Strawberry Day and pick up a gallon of Rathbone Farms Appalachian Grown-certified strawberries for just $10, or find Rathbone’s berries on the shelves of Ingles stores in Canton, Waynesville, and Weaverville.

Lifelong friends and Haywood County farmers Dibe Duckett and Kaleb Rathbone have always been idea men, they say. One of their best ideas to date? To hold their now-famous spring Strawberry Day festival, which turns 3 this month.

Duckett, a sixth-generation farmer, owns and operates two Duckett’s Produce roadside stands with his family — one in Clyde and one in Maggie Valley. He vends produce from his farm, like sweet corn and pumpkins later in the year. He also sources from a dozen other local farmers, including his buddy Rathbone. “Kaleb was growing strawberries locally, yet so many berries people were buying were coming from South Carolina,” Duckett says.

And so the event, held at Duckett’s stand in Maggie Valley, was born. “It’s great to work with someone you trust and to use our relationship to help each other out,” says Rathbone, adding, “The festival is a great tool to raise awareness of our two businesses as well as the local crop.” It’s a local crop definitely worth knowing about, Duckett chimes in. “The cold mountain air just makes them taste better!”

Strawberry Day goers agree. Last year, Rathbone sold nearly 900 gallons of his strawberries, all picked just before and during the event. “We started picking around sunrise,” Rathbone recalls, “and then we delivered four or five times throughout the day with the help of a crew of about 20 people.”

Seeing customers enjoy his crop is exciting for Rathbone, a second-generation farmer who wasn’t always sure his dream of growing strawberries would become a reality. “My dad let me have land to try them out,” he says, “but my first crop was a complete disaster.” When asked just what was disastrous, he responds, “What wasn’t!” After taking a year off to rethink and plan, he tried again. Now, with the help of his family, he has four acres, and buckets of his berries fly off the shelves each spring: at the festival, at Duckett’s stands, and at Ingles stores in Canton, Waynesville and Weaverville.

Of course, they sell fast at the festival in other forms too, including fried pies and Duckett’s famous strawberry pudding and homemade ice cream, a well-guarded family recipe. This year, the dynamic duo promises even more food to enjoy, kids’ activities and likely a few other surprises. What does the future hold? They plan to keep the festival going and growing, but they don’t have any specific plans right now. Or, at least, ideas ready to share with the world. “We’re always thinking,” Duckett says.

Got strawberies?

Make it strawberry day every day for the rest of May by shopping markets and groceries or by ordering special local strawberry dishes at participating Get Local restaurants. Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project’s Get Local initiative brings together farmers, chefs and community members to celebrate a single seasonal ingredient each month. Nate Allen, chef and owner of Knife and Fork in Spruce Pine, plans to use local strawberries throughout all sections of his menu. To showcase their savory side, he’ll toss them in a spinach salad with lamb-bacon and ricotta cheese. Honoring their sweet side, he’ll whip up batches of biscuit strawberry shortcakes. Red Stag Grill in Asheville will pair their local berries with champagne for dessert, a light, sweet champagne sabayon to be exact. And, until May’s end, Square 1 Bistro in Hendersonville will create small plates featuring local strawberries. A customer favorite so far: white chocolate mousse with fresh strawberries and a flaky cinnamon twist.

To find a list of all participating Get Local restaurants, visit asapconnections.org and click on Get Local. There, you’ll find information about Get Local in area schools, where the focus is also on strawberries right now.

Of course, area roadside stands and tailgate markets have lots more produce to offer as summer nears. Be on the lookout for early summer bounty, including snow peas, pea shoots, cucumbers, zucchini, green onions, beets, radishes, carrots, cabbage, chard, kale, collards and more varieties of greens.

Most markets are already open for the season, but a few open in late May and June. For a complete list of market opening dates across WNC, visit asapconnections.org. For the locations of tailgates and roadside stands throughout the region, pick up a copy of ASAP’s brand new 2011 Local Food Guide on stands now, or browse the guide online at buyappalachian.org.

— Maggie Cramer is the communications coordinator at ASAP. Contact her at maggie@asapconnections.org.

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