At Biringer Farms in Arlington, strawberry picker Camilo Dominguez fills up a flat full of strawberries while lying down in a solar-powered picking assistant machine. Biringer tried out the individual picking assistants for the first time about two years ago and now has a fleet of 10. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

At Biringer Farms in Arlington, strawberry picker Camilo Dominguez fills up a flat full of strawberries while lying down in a solar-powered picking assistant machine. Biringer tried out the individual picking assistants for the first time about two years ago and now has a fleet of 10. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

At Biringer, workers harvest strawberries on their bellies

ARLINGTON — Pickers dragged the solar-powered, wheeled white rovers into position straddling rows of nearly knee-high bushes laden with ripe strawberries.

The workers at Biringer Farm stretched out on their stomachs on the vehicles, called picking assistants, so they lie just above the plants. They used a little silver switch to go from forward to reverse, and a foot pedal to control speed.

On Monday, pickers worked quickly to fill boxes with strawberries, roaming the rows on the farm’s new fleet of machines.

“The people like it,” said Antonio Reza, who has picked at Biringer for four years. “It’s a lot more picking, a lot more boxes.”

Biringer Farm has been off Highway 530 in Arlington for more than a decade. Before that, the Biringer family grew berries in the Marysville and Everett area. The farm started in Marysville in 1948.

Owner Mike Biringer is a berry expert. Even so, he says running a working farm is like starting a new business every year. There are new employees, a new crop, new customers and unpredictable weather. There’s also some new tech.

Two years ago, Biringer bought one picking assistant machine to try. He was looking for ways to make the work easier on pickers and help them keep up with the crop.

The farm already had a larger machine where 12 pickers can lie down and pluck strawberries from the fields. The problem is that they have to move at the same speed down the rows. That means fast pickers get frustrated because they can’t gather as much if they’re waiting on slower coworkers, and they get paid based on how much they pick. But if the group’s pace is too fast, slower workers leave good berries behind.

Longtime pickers liked Biringer’s new single-person picking assistant. The solar-powered battery went all day long, and each worker could set his or her own pace. It was easier on their backs and increased their haul.

Last year, Biringer bought four more of the machines, bringing his fleet to five. This year, he decided to double it. There now are 10 picking assistants roving around the far fields, beyond the farm’s well-known U-pick area.

There have been about 16 pickers working this week, with more signed up to start later, up to 30 or 40 during the height of the season. As school gets out, the farm hires students for summer jobs. Until then, there’s a core crew of professional pickers. On a six-hour day last weekend, 14 of them hauled in more than 500 flats of berries. The farm pays $2.75 per flat.

The Biringers sell their berries at the farm and fruit stands and to produce markets. Up to 30 percent of their business comes from the U-pick fields. The rest of the berries are hauled in by hired pickers.

The farm tends to harvest about 5 tons of strawberries per acre, with about a dozen active acres this year, Biringer said. That’s roughly a 60-ton season.

In the previous two years, unusually hot springs led to the early arrival of strawberries. They ripened in May, before pickers had been hired. That was a struggle, Biringer said.

“It’s a more regular season this year, time-wise,” he said.

An early variety of strawberry known as Sweet Sunrise ripened around June 6. Other varieties now are reaching their peak, and some later types are just turning red, Biringer said. The farmer tries to stretch his season by having multiple varieties of the popular fruit.

“We kind of spread them out so it’s not all at once,” he said. “It’s hard to get to them all at once.”

The farm also has raspberries, along with a much smaller number of tayberry, blackberry and blueberry plants. The first raspberries of the season were picked this week, but most won’t be ready until July.

Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; kbray@heraldnet.com.

Plan a visit

The Biringer Farm store opened for the season earlier this month. It’s open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. most days, but closes an hour earlier Sundays.

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