That’s important, because most conventional farmers still say they need to use chemicals, particularly methyl bromide, to stay in business. The fumigant, which sterilizes soil to control weeds and diseases, was supposed to be phased out under the Clean Air Act by 2005, because it depletes the ozone layer. (The common alternative, methyl iodide, was pulled from production by its manufacturer last summer and banned by the EPA in December. A carcinogenic, it can affect the brain and nervous system of anyone exposed to it.) But methyl bromide is still used by most strawberry farmers under “critical use” extensions from the EPA, granted on the basis of industry claims that there are no technically and economically feasible alternatives to the chemical. Jim Cochran has proved them wrong: it’s “surprisingly easier” than many farmers claim, he says, to grow strawberries without chemicals. He believes there’s no need to be poisoning the air, water and workers with harmful chemicals to have a profitable berry business. These days, more strawberry growers are following suit, but still only about 4 percent of commercial berries are organic.
Aside from the impact on the environment, experts say that strawberries are one of the fruits and vegetables that are highest in chemical residues. Gina Solomon, senior scientist and public health expert at the National Resources Defense Council, says that strawberries are treated with a number of fungicides that have been proven to be carcinogenic or toxic. “To scrub off the toxic chemicals on a conventional strawberry, you’d have to scrub until there was no strawberry left,” she says.
At the Swanton pick-your-own fields—marked by a vintage pickup truck with a bright strawberry sign—there’s no scrubbing. Kids, fingers stained red, pop bright berries into their mouths as fast as they go into the baskets. Inside the farmstand, visitors gather at blue picnic tables, sampling strawberry shortcakes, pies and preserves or eating the little jewels plain.
Cochran surveys the scene and smiles. “Have some shortcake,” he tells a visitor, offering a flaky biscuit with glistening berries and a froth of real whipped cream. Cochran says shortcake is his favorite way to eat strawberries. He looks forward to it every season; by midwinter he’s almost dreaming of it. Then, finally, in spring, he gets his first bowl of deep red, freshly picked strawberries, tasting the way strawberries should: an intense flavor that always takes him right back to his grandmother’s garden.