Dayton’s Tennessee Strawberry Festival marks its 70th year in May with its annual pageant, parade, carnival, music and crafts festival celebrating the strawberry since 1947. Festival events are centered on the Rhea County Courthouse square, with strawberry sellers set up in the Dayton Chamber of Commerce parking lot on Friday and Saturday and at stands scattered around town.
› May 8: Family Fun Night at Pendergrass Park
› May 9: Carnival opens
› May 10: Strawberry baking contest, strawberry shortcake at Centennial Park, Dayton Christian Ballet
› May 11: Dayton Art League fine arts show inside courthouse, carnival
› May 12: Fine arts show, cruise-in, Dreams of Kings
› May 13: Fine arts show, Dayton Rotary pancake breakfast, Strawberry Chase run/walk, music
Source: Tennessee Strawberry Festival
For the first time in 33 years, Tidwell's Berry Farm in Spring City, Tenn., won't have strawberries for sale as the Tennessee Strawberry Festival in neighboring Dayton celebrates its 70th year.
The festival still will have plenty of berries from other producers, but the Tidwells needed a break after more than three decades of growing, Emily Tidwell said.
A post on the farm's Facebook page assures customers the world has not come to an end.
"Despite what you might have heard, I can assure you Ray is not dead. Neither of us are ill. We haven't moved away. And Dayton will still have a Strawberry Festival," the post reads as it attempts to head off rumors of a strawberry apocalypse.
"We just decided it was time to step back for a year, at least," Tidwell said of the more than three-decade run with her husband, Ray.
"We think in our heads we're 30, but we're not," she laughed.
Strawberry growing is a year-round proposition, with preparations starting in July and continuing till harvest in late April or early May. Tidwell said the couple will have to decide by early summer what they'll do next year.
"We don't know yet," she said. "Ray is a perpetual motion machine and he loves it. But all the work up till harvest is not his favorite work."
However, she said, her husband loves harvest time and will truly miss the pickers who come to Rhea County from Mexico through a federal agricultural visa program. Agricultural employers who demonstrate a lack of local labor can qualify to hire foreign nationals to work temporarily during harvest.
The same men have worked at the berry farm for the past 17 years and "that's the part Ray really enjoys; being in the field with the guys and speaking in Spanish," she said. On the other hand, for the first time in 33 strawberry growing seasons, the Tidwells have enjoyed sleeping through frost protection that requires them to scramble to cover up the plants during cold snaps.
While strawberries won't be available this year, the Tidwells' blueberries and peaches will ready by late June or early July, she said.
Tennessee Strawberry Festival officials already have plans to make sure Tennessee-grown strawberries are plentiful for festivalgoers.
"We were determined to have Tennessee berries," Strawberry Festival Committee chairwoman Linda Blevins said Thursday. "We will have at least three local growers."
This year's berries will come from Flat Top Farms near Soddy-Daisy, Lorenzen Family Farm in Dayton, and Swafford Farms in Bledsoe County, Blevins said.
Those local growers will sell their berries starting early Friday and Saturday morning during the festival. Then a larger, commercial grower will arrive with quantities of berries grown in Unicoi County to keep visitors and berry fans happy through the rest of the day, she said.
Northeast Tennessee's Scott Strawberry and Tomato Farms in Unicoi supplies strawberries to Food City grocery stores, and the company's corporate side is going to ship 300 to 400 flats of strawberries — 2 gallons of fruit each — to Dayton.
"They have the same plants the Tidwells use," Blevins said, noting that Scott's berries will be a special variety available only at this year's festival.
Meanwhile, Tidwell's faithful customers seem understanding, if a bit disappointed, based on their posts on the farm's Facebook page.
"Enjoy your time off away from the strawberries this year. Well-deserved rest!" one hopeful poster wrote. "Going to just make them that much better next year!"
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569.