Farmer David Pope walks the rows of his Knightdale pick-your-own strawberry patch, stopping every six plants or so to point out one that's stunted.
Pope pulls back a small plant's green leaves to show that it is finally producing blooms, though not as many as neighboring plants.
"They are actually growing now, but instead of producing one pound, they might produce 60 percent," Pope said of the smallest plants among the 32,000 on his 2 acres, located 15 miles east of Raleigh.
Pope is one of several North Carolina farmers who ended up with virus-infected strawberry plants from two nurseries in Nova Scotia. This year's pair of viruses stunts the plants' growth and reduces the number of berries they will produce. Strawberry expert Barclay Poling estimates that 12 percent of the state's 1,600 acres in strawberry production will be affected. Those acres will still produce fruit, although likely not as much as they typically do.
Poling estimates there will be 4 percent fewer strawberries this year, or 27.6 million berries instead of 28.8 million.
The better news for these farmers is that it could have been a lot worse, according to Poling, professor emeritus at North Carolina State University who advises the state's strawberry farmers. Florida farmers who got these virus-infected plants saw the plants wither in their warmer climate.
Poling explains that two plant breeders in Great Village, Nova Scotia, unknowingly distributed 18 million virus-infected strawberry plants to farmers in about a dozen states.
In addition, when strawberry plant viruses come in pairs, farmers really have problems. "Singly, by themselves, viruses are not a problem," Poling said. "But come together and watch out."
In Florida, Poling said, these virus-infected plants were under immediate stress in the warm climate and couldn't rebound. In North Carolina, Poling said, the plants had more time to recover during this year's unusually cold winter. Also, he said, the "plug" plants seemed better able to handle the stress caused by the viruses.
And based on other researchers' advice, Poling told farmers to care for the virus-infected plants as much as possible. For farmers like Pope, that has meant providing the plants with more water and extra protection on cold nights.
"We have watered more than normal and frost-protected more than normal," Pope said.
"We're still on pins and needles," Poling said. "It looks positive that we're going to pull through up here."