By Rebecca Salinas
Albert Reyes, 73, has grown strawberries in Poteet since 1974, and hopes to win Grand Champion for the third year in a row during the annual Poteet Strawberry Festival Friday-Sunday in Atascosa County.
An award-winning grower, Reyes started growing his now prized possessions because of the festival and the large amount of money awarded to the grand champion.
Reyes won grand champion in 2012 and 2013, yielding $10,300 the first year and $13,000 the following. But the list does not stop there. He won reserve, second to grand champion, five times in the 1990s. In 1988, he won both reserve and grand champion.
Today, he continues to farm on his quiet ranch on the outskirts of Poteet.
Other than problems with coyotes and birds, the biggest hurdle in the way of his quest for grand champion is the weather.
“The cold weather got them bad,” Reyes said.
Without anything to protect the plant, the plants are burned by freezing temperatures.
Although the winter was tough on his crops, the ongoing drought caused the most damage. Reyes said his crops are simply not producing like they used to. He has to use irrigation rather than rely on rain, a method referred to as dry farming.
“We used to grow everything on the farm out of the good Lord,” he said. “The drought has been really hurting dry land farmers.”
Gazing across the landscape, he said this past drought worsened over the past few years. Near his booted feet, strawberry plants sat on dry mounds on orange dirt, separated by drenched canals.
His house wells have gone dry, and they have to pipe in water from Benton City.
“The more water we suck out of the ground, the worse it gets,” he said.
He said farming was good in the 1970s and 1980s, but declined since the 1990s. He admits both the economy and weather have slowed down production. People are not buying his vegetables like they used to.
As a result, Reyes cut the number of acres used for planting. In the past, he used 500 acres for farming and ranching, but has since cut that number in half.
“We’ve got to keep doing it. That’s all I know how to do,” he said. “You’ve got to stay at it until you die, I guess…Especially small farmers like us.”
“Anybody who has been a farmer is not a quitter.”
Reyes masters three different varieties of strawberries: Chandler, Seascape and Albion.
But, it’s about more than winning contests. For Reyes, it’s a livelihood. He makes his living by selling his strawberries to the community and on the side of the road at $22 for 12 pints. In the strawberry plot, he sells an average of 40-50 flats three times a week.
On Saturday he will submit his best strawberries — 24 pints for each entry — for judging in sweetness, uniformity and size.
He admits the judges are pretty tough because each farmer takes growing seriously.
This year will mark the 67th anniversary of the Strawberry Festival in Poteet. The annual festival’s promotes the locally grown strawberries and provides scholarships.
Linda Ritchey, secretary of the festival’s Board of Directors, said the festival is the city’s biggest income. She added the festival attracts around 100,000-120,000 people, but the festival attracts more people each year.
The festival marks the height of the strawberry season, the first crop of the year. The sprouts are planted in September and are harvested in March through May.
Reyes’ sprouts arrive frozen from California, and are planted once they thaw, and the ground must be drenched.
About an acre and a half are dedicated to strawberries that are picked by hand. In the lonely plot on the farm sits 11,000 to 12,000 strawberry plants.
The trick to growing perfect strawberries calls for constant moisture and fertilization, Reyes said. The berries take a lot of water, more than his other crops.
Twice a week, thousands of gallons of water soak the strawberries and the soil surrounding them.
Each plant is different, so the strawberries grow at different rates. In March, about half the berries ripened to a rich, red color. The other half sit green and small, waiting to mature.
Although strawberries are his specialty, Reyes also grows watermelon, cantaloupe, squash, tomatoes, peas and hay, all while raising cattle.
Right now strawberries are his primary focus, but he will start planting hay for his cows soon.
On Friday and Saturday he planted watermelons on 20-25 acres. After watermelons follow smaller, fall crops.
The talent of farming and ranching was passed to him by his father, and has been his passion throughout his life.
“I like to see plants grow and produce their fruit,” he said.
Reyes’ sons do some farm work, but they dedicate most of their time to their full-time jobs, unlike their father who has always worked for himself.
“They don’t want to do much of this, they’ve got their own jobs,” he said. “For me, this is my full income. This is my bread and butter year round.”
He said one or two of his sons may continue to farm, but he does not know what will happen to his business after he retires. Although alive with pride, he admitted his age slowed him down, so he plans to farm and ranch for two to three more years before the age of 75.
From working with cattle to planting, he works from around 7 a.m.-6 p.m. every day.
“This is an everyday job,” he said. “This thing is too much trouble. You get down and you get to picking, and you don’t pick four rows and you’re tired.”
Reyes works with good company though; he farms with his brother and sister-in-law.
“We all compete with each other…Out here I’ve been growing the best ones too,” he joked.
Under his cowboy hat, Reyes gazed proudly at his strawberry plot, believing he really did try all he could to produce the best strawberries.
“Look at those berries,” he repeated.