How sweet it is; Rutherford opens strawberry patch for picking | News

The owner of Rutherford Farms since 1976, Steve Rutherford knows the science behind growing the best strawberries you’ll ever put in your mouth.

For instance, while other spring crops may require a good soaking rain every few days, his strawberries do just fine with no rain at all.

“If it didn’t rain in strawberry season, I would be tickled to death,” he told a group of Maryville High School culinary students Tuesday morning at his Maryville farm.

Rain, he explained, will result in mushy fruit and can trigger disease. Too much water also dilutes the sweetness of the berries. Rutherford said it’s like taking a gallon of delicious sweet tea and then diluting it with four gallons of unsweet.

That’s just not right, this farmer said.

Each year, he opens up his fields to pickers who want to come and gather the luscious fruit on their own. He also has some berries already picked by his staff in case you don’t have the desire to bend over a strawberry patch or spend the time it requires.

Rutherford grows his 2½ acres of strawberries in raised beds with black plastic covering them. The plants get their required H2O from a drip irrigation system using water from a nearby pond.

Put a store-bought berry next to his and there is no comparison, said Susan Headrick, culinary arts teacher at Maryville High. She said the ones her class recently bought from a retail store were white inside, hard and tasteless. They needed sugar, she said.

Rutherford took out his knife, sliced into one of his and gave her a taste.

“No sugar needed,” she said as she devoured the fruit. “No sugar needed.”

Headrick brought about a dozen of her juniors and seniors to Rutherford’s to pick strawberries that then were going to be turned into strawberry shortcakes and jams.

Science of it all

There is so much more to getting this equation right than the appropriate amount of water. Rutherford first dug in the dirt as a young boy, tilling his family’s garden in Sullivan County. After earning his bachelor’s degree from Carson-Newman University and master’s of divinity at Duke University, he worked as a special agent for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

When he decided to start growing his own crops, the decision on what to plant came easy.

“I like strawberries,” he said. “It has taken off from there.”

This farmer has experimented with ways to extend the berry season, which around here is mid-April to mid-June. He said when the temperature rises into the 80s and 90s, strawberries don’t fare well. They prefer the mid-70s, he has discovered.

To cool his plants down in the heat of the day, Rutherford tried pumping his 75-degree pond water onto his plants; it worked. It is a fine line between too much water and not enough, but he found the formula. He shared that info with other growers and experts. Soon others began using his technique.

“That is just one small thing we are doing that has now spread all over the country,” Rutherford said. “We extended our season by three weeks.”

That was six or seven years ago. Rutherford is still using the technique to coax as many berries as he can from the ground.

No complaints

This season so far is going well. On Monday, he said 500 gallons of the red, ripe berries left the field. Some went to places that will turn them into jams and jellies in Pigeon Forge. Some were bought up by Lambert’s here in Maryville for their homemade strawberry pies and other goodies.

“What has come out of here has been pretty and sweet,” Rutherford said.

Despite more than 40 years in business, he said he continues to learn and adjust to whatever conditions arise. The fact his soil is rich in potassium, something strawberries adore, gives him an edge on most.

“We have potassium that is off the charts,” he said.

As the culinary students arrived to pick, Rutherford took questions, told a few stories and emphasized knowing which berries to pick. They need to be red in color with no white or green spots. The only green on them should be the cap, he said.

Nico Pickens, a junior, and Connor Howe, a senior, found a row in the back field and began gathering berries. This was the first time for both. Pickets said she will be going into culinary arts as a career; Howe had other reasons for taking the class at Maryville.

“I just want to learn how to cook well,” he explained.

Being on this land for decades, Rutherford is a familiar face to many in this community who came to his farm as kids to pick with their parents. They are now bringing their kids, and sometimes it’s grandchildren.

In addition to the strawberries, Rutherford also grows and sells broccoli, cauliflower, onions, cabbage, lettuce and beets during this early growing season. Later in the year, he will have squash, green beans, tomatoes, corn and sweet potatoes.

Tuesday was a good day for picking — sunny with a breeze and temps in the 70s in late morning. Rutherford looked out over his fields and had to smile.

“A strawberry is as sweet as it will ever be coming off that vine,” he said. “Without adding sugar to it. We can pick strawberries tomorrow that will make sugar look dumb. They are that sweet. They already are.”

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