You-pick strawberries make Douglas County farm a destination

photo by: Richard Gwin

Trent Kling, of Pittsburg, comes to Wohletz Farm Fresh on North 1831 Road to pick strawberries for his coffee shop.

Jane and Jerry Wohletz are inviting visitors to their rural Douglas County homestead to try their hand at farming.

At least, they encourage visitors to participate in the harvest side of farming, and that’s the best part when the crop is strawberries.

Once again this year, Wohletz Farm Fresh at 1831 North 1100 Road is marketing the 2 acres of strawberries grown on the farm to do-it-yourself pickers, one of several locations in the area offering such an experience. Jerry Wohletz said the picking experience does connect customers to agriculture.

“It’s amazing the education people get,” he said. “They ask a lot of questions about how it grows. At least, the kids learn it doesn’t grow in a freezer at the grocery store.”

The strawberries have thrived with the cool, damp weather of the past month, and that has allowed the picking season to extend through this weekend. That’s unusual, Wohletz said, as the plants usually only produce fruit through three you-pick weekends.

Many visitors have already found the farm this year, coming from as far away as Hays to pick fresh strawberries, Jerry Wohletz said. Customers kept the farm’s 60-vehicle parking lot filled Saturday and picked clean the ripe strawberries available in the 2-acre plot.

With that, the farm — which is open during strawberry season from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday — remained closed Monday to give time for more fruit to ripen. The message in that is customers should always call 785-331-3468 to see whether there are strawberries available to pick, he said.

The farm already had a local reputation from the tomatoes, broccoli, sweet onions and potatoes it offered at the Lawrence Farmers’ Market under the name Tomato Allie before adding strawberries seven years ago. The couple added the you-pick crop when Jane Wohletz convinced her at-first-doubtful husband to go along with the plan.

“I remember picking strawberries with my mother,” she said. “You have such great memories from those activities. I thought it would be great if we could do something here.”

Her husband was reluctant at first because he didn’t think they could stay ahead of weeds. But after consulting with Kansas State Extension, he connected with an Arkansas grower who eliminated the weeding problem by growing strawberries in plastic-covered raised beds, watered through drip irrigation.

“We were the first to grow strawberries in raised beds in Kansas,” Jerry Wohletz said.

Research also led him to the right variety of strawberry to plant.

“We only grow Chandlers,” he said. “The reason for that is when it’s red, it’s ripe.”

The farm grows new plants each year, treating the crop as an annual and using three different fields on a rotating basis, he said. That allow soils to recover and helps keep in check insect pests that would feast on the plants.

Threats to the crop include late freezes, deer predation and hail, Jerry Wohletz said. To protect them, the young plants winter under row covers in fields surrounded by deer fence. There is no defense against hail, and the farm’s first crop was damaged days before the season opened. ?”Our customers were understanding,” he said. “They understood the dings in the strawberries were from hail and not disease.”

The farm’s customers have proved loyal, too, Jerry Wohletz said. Many return year after year, and frequently multiple times in the same year, bringing friends to join them.? Customers will have another reason to visit in the years ahead. Jane Wohletz said the couple planted blueberries in March. They should be ready for the first you-pick harvest in two years, she said.