Strawberry farmer encouraging others to grow berries
A bucket of strawberries sits in a strawberry patch owned by Collyge Farm & Produce near Westville. CHAD HUNTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Dylan Collyge, owner of Collyge Farm & Produce near Westville, said he hopes other young people will start strawberry patches in Adair County to continue the tradition of having strawberries in the county. CHAD HUNTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Pickers gather strawberries from a patch owned by Collyge Farm & Produce near Westville. CHAD HUNTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Strawberries grow on top of black plastic cover in a patch owned by Cherokee grower Dylan Collyge. CHAD HUNTER/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
WESTVILLE – Strawberry farmer and Collyge Farm & Produce owner Dylan Collyge plans to take part in this year’s Stilwell Strawberry Festival as a strawberry grower.
He plans to have strawberries in the annual judging contest and to sell some of his crop that he grows near Westville in northern Adair County.
“Growing up I never missed a Strawberry Festival that I can remember. We always went every year,” Collyge said. “I always wanted to be in the situation where I could grow something and be a part of that group of people that continues the tradition of strawberry growing.”
Collyge, 25, has a little more than 2 acres of strawberry plants growing.
“This is the first year out of this patch here. We’ll pick it again next year and add another patch north of here,” he said.
He said he plans on having the same number of plants next year. In his 2-acre patch he estimates he can harvest two thousand to three thousand flats of berries. A flat contains 8 quarts of berries.
“We plant in September. We cover them for the winter and then uncover them (in early spring) and use the cover when they start blooming for frost/freeze protection,” he said.
Around his 2-acre patch he has an 8-foot high fence to keep out deer and other animals that want to eat the berries.
The Cherokee Nation citizen also said the growing method used by many of today’s strawberry farmers is different than it used to be. Black plastic is placed under the plants to help grow the berries because it keeps the soil about 10 degrees warmer in the spring. For example, if the soil temperature outside the strawberry patch is 40 degrees, he can still grow berries at 50 degrees in his patch. Also, next to each row is an irrigation hose to water the plants, and the hose can also carry liquid fertilizer.
Adair County, particularly around Stilwell where the annual Stilwell Strawberry Festival is held each May, is known for its award-winning strawberry crops, but the number of strawberry patches in the county has dropped in the past 30 years.
“It seemed like there was a berry patch at every mile intersection when I was a kid,” said Dylan’s father, Jeff Collyge. “Probably not that many, but it seemed so. I picked berries as a kid. In 1974, I remember getting 8 cents a quart to pick. The next year, the pay went to 10 cents a quart. I remember thinking, dang, we’re gonna get rich.”
Jeff said he believes the reasons for the decline in strawberry patches are canning factories stopped buying them, and it’s hard work to grow and sustain a patch.
“When Dylan decided to grow, I was really proud of his decision. I’m glad he is working so hard to keep our local tradition and legacy alive,” he said.
Dylan said he believes there are less than half a dozen strawberry patches in the county now. He fears in three to five years there won’t be enough strawberry growers in Adair County to sustain the tradition of the county being known for strawberries and possibly lessen the annual Strawberry festival.
He added that there are youth agriculture loans that could help young people get in the strawberry-growing business.
“You just need to have land and a little help,” he said. “It’s important that we find more people to do this to carry on the tradition, to keep it going,” he said.