Chillicothe's Hirsch Fruit Farm grows springtime's must-have berry.

Strawberry jam, strawberry ice cream, strawberry pie … oh my! It's officially time to get your hands on the best pick of the year and put it to good use—we won't blame you if “good use” means straight out of the carton.

While you might have seen early-season strawberries in the grocery stores, those berries are typically imports from the coasts. Mass producers in California and Florida use what's called the plasticulture strawberry growing method, which utilizes grow beds covered in plastic to help them ripen sooner. But here in Ohio, fifth-generation farmer Steve Hirsch of Hirsch Fruit Farms prefers the traditional method of matted-row growing. While the crop may not arrive to market until late May or even early June using this method, the outcome, Hirsch says, is “a softer berry with lots of juice, well worth the wait.”

Farming in Chillicothe since 1872, the Hirsch family began with dairy and beef cows, expanding to fruit (peaches to start) in 1890. Over time they introduced other crops and now grow up to 15 each season, taking up roughly 100 acres of the 480-acre property (the rest is hardwood forest).

Only three acres of the farm are dedicated to strawberries, and these little guys go fast, with Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams buying them in bulk for Roasted Strawberry Buttermilk ice cream. Little Eater also uses Hirsch strawberries in its prepared dishes and sells them by the carton at Produce & Provisions inside North Market. Hirsch strategically extends the season as long as possible by growing eight different varieties, staggered to ripen for about four weeks.

To ensure you get your hands on the prize during this brief season, look for Hirsch Fruit Farm at local farmers markets such as Chillicothe (Saturdays), Upper Arlington (Wednesdays), Bexley (Thursdays) and Hilliard (Tuesdays, starting June 5). Or visit the Hirsch farm store (12846 State Route 772)—open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday or the Hirsch Market at 41 Seney Road in Chillicothe, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays.

Also, save the date for Jeni's Strawberry Jam at Land-Grant Brewing Co. on June 2, a picnic-style party in celebration of Ohio's strawberry season (see Page 114). The event features live music, picnic fare, Jeni's strawberry ice cream and pints of Hirsch's “gem-like” berries available for sale.