Photography by Addie Strozier
The unusually warm winter weather, followed by a cold snap in early spring, was no match for this local strawberry farmer.
For many local residents, one of the most anticipated announcements that spring officially has sprung is sighting the Gurosik’s Berry Plantation tents at strategic locations in the area.
This year, the roadside markets appeared even earlier than usual when the weather pushed up strawberry season by several weeks. And thanks to fickle Mother Nature, those delicious red berries – homegrown in Edgefield County, South Carolina by Marilyn and Clyde Gurosik (pronounced Jer-OH-sik) – received an extra dose of TLC.
“We had the worst freeze in history in this area in March. It was even worse than the Easter freeze in April of 2007,” says Clyde. “This freeze put that one to shame because things were so advanced. January and February were so warm, so the fruit bloomed early.”
Gurosik’s Berry Plantation owner Clyde Gurosik
Put on Ice
For six straight days in March, Clyde worked in 22-hour cycles to save the strawberries. When early morning temperatures plunged below the freezing mark for three days, he covered the strawberries with thermal row covers, which are like thermal blankets, to hold in the ground temperature.
“The ground temperature is significantly warmer, so if you can cap it and hold it down, you can create an igloo where you can get six degrees of additional temperature,” he says.
He kept a close watch on the 20 ice bath-calibrated thermometers scattered around his 100-acre farm, so he would know if he needed to turn on sprinklers to ice the plants and keep them warm. Yes, he iced the plants to keep them warm. “When those thermometers hit 32 degrees, you’re in trouble,” says Clyde.
When water is applied at the correct rate and changes from a liquid to ice, he explains, it gives off energy and acts like a giant gasoline heater.
“The encasement of the plants in ice is actually a protective measure,” says Clyde, who worked in thermonuclear weapons components management at Savannah River Site for almost 30 years. “It has to be done when there’s no wind. If you get any wind at all, you get evaporative cooling. It’s a touchy game when you can and can’t use water. We have 10 minutes to make a critical decision. It’s a laborious process. It takes a lot of energy, a lot of science.”
His efforts paid off because he was able to save his entire crop.
“It’s not like the old days when you put the seeds in the ground and watched them grow,” says Marilyn, a former music teacher who now handles marketing operations for the farm.
Return to His Roots
While technology has changed some things since “the old days,” others have remained the same. Farming, for instance, is embedded in Clyde’s DNA. He grew up on a strawberry farm in Pennsylvania, and he has had his current farm since 1982. After he retired – or in his word, “transitioned” – from SRS in 2000, he became a fulltime farmer.
“My first memory is being in a bassinet on our porch while my parents were harvesting strawberries,” he says. “I wanted to go back to my roots and grow strawberries, but I didn’t plan on doing it on this scale.”
Through the years, the business has grown from one small U-Pick field to a thriving commercial retail and wholesale operation. The insane hours that he worked in March are nothing new for Clyde, however. He worked from 5 a.m. until 6 p.m. at SRS, and then went home and farmed until 11 p.m. He was up at 3 a.m. the next day to start the cycle all over again.
He also pays meticulous attention to detail. Clyde looked at 100 parcels of land before finding his farmland, which is located on the brink of the coastal plain and the piedmont. “Everything here was a forest,” he says. “There was not a field here.” The Gurosiks purchased their land in three sections after conducting extensive soil and water research.
They also grow other crops including blackberries, sweet onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, asparagus, green beans and flowers. However, Clyde says of the land, “It’s specific for strawberries. That’s why we bought it. The sandy loam is good for berries, and the clay underneath holds in the micronutrients.”
They built irrigation ponds and seven separate pumping stations, and the 12 acres of strawberry fields are at different elevations, orientations and wind exposure to alter the start, peak and end of the season.
Farm workers plant 120,000 strawberry plants by hand in one day in the first week of October, then water them for seven to 10 days. To grow the berries, the farm has an investment of $15,000 per acre, which includes plants, fertilizer, soil fumigation, plastic, lime, drip hoses, micronutrients and labor costs.
“It has to be replaced every single year. Otherwise, the plants wouldn’t be clean,” says Clyde.
He says it takes 28 days from the time the plant blooms to the time it produces fruit, and each spring a 10-man crew arrives from Mexico to pick the strawberries. Clyde instructs the men to pick berries that are fully colored, with no green showing. The pickers rotate through the fields every three days to establish the berries’ sugar, flavor and micronutrient content.
“The minute you pick a strawberry, it will have its flavor and sugar content forever,” Clyde says. “It will turn red after you pick it, but it won’t get sweeter.”
Of course, for optimum quality control, he conducts his own taste tests in the strawberry fields as well. “If you picked a berry out of a field, I could tell by the taste which field it came from,” he says. “The fields have their own characteristics, like people. You can add nutrients to the soil, but you won’t change what God put there.”
Avia Edwards at Gurosik’s roadside stand on River Watch Parkway in Martinez
‘Touched by the Hand of God’
Because Clyde doesn’t harvest the berries until they are fully ripe, he sells them only at roadside markets. Columbia County locations include the corners of Furys Ferry and Mulliken roads, River Watch Parkway and Baston Road, and Lewiston, Columbia and Hereford Farm roads. Other area locations include the Augusta Market on the River, Wacky Wayne’s Fireworks off of Interstate 20 in North Augusta and the Aiken Bypass Market.
“It makes so many people happy,” says Marilyn. “They’re thrilled to get fresh berries.”
Many of the people that work at the tents are retirees who like to be active. All of them have outgoing personalities that represent the farm well, says Clyde. Avia Edwards has worked at the River Watch Parkway stand for five years. She is following in the footsteps of her mother, aunt and cousin, who have worked at the roadside markets.
“My favorite thing is seeing our regular customers every year,” Avia says. “The strawberries are so sweet and so pretty. The quality brings everybody back.”
One of those regular customers is George Litchfield of Atlanta. The builder comes to the area every week, and he has been a loyal customer for 10 years. He usually buys about 10 gallons of strawberries at a time.
“All of my friends in Atlanta love the strawberries, so I buy some for them,” George says. “They’re great. They’re delicious. They’re fabulous. The ladies that sell them are fabulous.”
In addition to baskets full of berries, the tent is stocked with fresh vegetables, homemade breads and fritters, relish, chow-chow, cider, syrup, jam, honey and salsa. And in true Gurosik fashion, there typically are samples of berries available as well. “The best thing that sells is samples,” Clyde says.
The U-Pick field at the farm on Briggs Road in North Augusta is open 8 a.m. – 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. – 6 p.m. Sunday. Field managers show people where to pick the berries, and the optimum picking technique is to twist and quickly snap the berry from the plant.
“It’s more of a service to the public than a business now,” says Clyde. “I like to see happy people.”
Marilyn and Clyde Gurosik
About 3,000 schoolchildren tour the farm annually as well. “The kids think strawberries grow on the shelves at Walmart,” Clyde says.
Every time Clyde and Marilyn think about slowing down, they reconsider because of their customers. “I don’t have to do this. I do this because I grew up doing it, and it’s a true contribution to the community,” Clyde says. “When the sun shines on a strawberry, it’s touched by the hand of God.”
By Betsy Gilliland