Flamm roadside market

Flamm’s employee Evelyn Martinez serves customer Mark Boomer at the roadside market. Berry lovers flocked to the market early this year to get their share of the tasty fruit.

COBDEN, Ill. — Full parking lots and lines stretching all the way around the main market building are common sights this spring at Flamm Orchards. The people are here for one thing: strawberries.

“It’s been crazy,” said Jeff Flamm. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The orchard has been around for generations, but strawberries have been grown here for only 20 years. Like many growers, Flamm produces berries using plasticulture rather than the traditional straw-mulch system.

That method, for all practical purposes, turns the perennial plants into annuals. It is more expensive, but the benefits are many.

“We were one of the first ones in southern Illinois to grow them on plastic,” Flamm said. “That’s the only way we’ve ever grown them. The berries are a lot nicer, they’re bigger, they’re cleaner.”

The plastic-mulch method also helps the fruit ripen earlier, pushing harvest up as much as a month. Flamm said the berries were ready about a week earlier than usual this year. That brought out the hordes of berry- loving customers.

“They’re pretty big, they’re good, and everyone seems to love them,” said Evelyn Martinez, who serves customers at the market.

Greg McLaughlin also is pleased with his crop this year.

“They’re excellent,” said McLaughlin, who farms near Murphysboro, in Jackson County.

Like Flamm, he grows the berries on plastic, though his are ripening a bit later than Flamm’s.

“We are very lightly into them,” he said. “I don’t have my doors open. I come in later than most.”

He expected to be ready for U-pick by the weekend of May 16-17. McLaughlin started on straw 14 years ago, but switched over to plasticulture a few years back.

Flamm said the COVID-19 pandemic likely is playing a role in the demand this year.

“I guess everybody’s tired of being in,” he said. “A lot of people aren’t working. They’re looking for something to do, and the weather’s been good.”

At the beginning of harvest, Flamm limited customers to one flat each. He soon was able to remove that restriction as harvest gained steam.

“We open at 9 a.m., but if we would have served them earlier, we’d sell out before we were even supposed to open,” he said. “There were a few days last week where people stood in line for 45 minutes, and then they got turned away when we ran out of berries.”

Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.