This Saturday, unless it rains, the folks at the George Butler Orchards south of Damascus plan to make a 50-foot-long strawberry shortcake topped with 65 quarts of ice cream. They invite you to eat it.
It won't be the biggest strawberry shortcake ever made, according to Susan Butler, who helps run the orchard that her father and mother founded near the upper Montgomery County community in 1954, "but it's our start for a world record."
It is the ultimate celebration of the luscious red berry that abounds in pick-your-own orchards and grow-your-own back yards each June in and around the suburbs of Maryland. Altogether, there are 15 pick-your-own strawberry farms in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
The season, which seldom lasts as long as a month in these parts, began about two weeks early this year and is just about over.
At Butler's, on Davis Mill Road near Rtes. 27 and 355, nonpickers can purchase containers of strawberries for subsupermarket prices, pickers for 75 cents a pound. Also for sale are strawberry T-shirts, worn by all employes, strawberry recipe books, strawberry jams and strawberry plants.
Pickers drive their own cars to the fields and are assigned rows; they come by themselves, in pairs and in legions.
Last Friday, the day before Bethesda's Church of the Redeemer was to hold its 10th annual strawberry festival, a dozen or so church members trooped up to Butler's to pick 400 pounds of strawberries for the fund-raiser.
For many who go to the fields, it's as much a social event as a spirited harvesting of the berries.
"A lot of older people come out early in the morning," said Nancy McGowan of Potomac. "They're so friendly. You get to talking with everybody."
It is also often a family affair. McGowan worked one row while her daughter, Janet O'Connell, 29, of Rockville, worked the next. McGowan's grandson, 7-week-old Patrick O'Connell, slept in a carriage nearby.
"I haven't bought a jar of jam in years," said McGowan, who's been picking at Butler's for 16 years. The latest crop, a little late in the season and not as sweet as earlier ones, "will be good for the jams . . . and for strawberry daiquiris with a little extra sugar," her daughter said.
Strawberry "socials" were popular pastimes during the administration of President Lincoln. The church strawberry festival is another local institution that got under way during the 19th century and still thrives.
Maryland's Eastern Shore was once a major strawberry shipping area, but an epidemic of root rot in the 1930s changed all that: The Eastern Shore strawberry business never recovered. Today, California predominates in exporting the berries, with Watsonville, Calif., the principal producer.
In suburban Maryland, pick-your-own strawberry patches have mushroomed, so to speak, over the past three decades. But aside from this home-grown industry, Maryland originates most of the varieties of strawberries grown in the East. They are developed at the U.S. Agriculture Department's Beltsville facility.
George Darrow, who began the strawberry breeding program after World War I, worked for the Agriculture Department until he retired in 1957. After that he developed 40 varieties of day lilies in his spare time.
His two sons opened the first pick-your-own place in 1953, at the horticulturalist's farm in Glenn Dale, in Prince George's County.
"Father was a silent partner-adviser-stimulator-heckler," said his son Bill Darrow. "Until he was 91, if I didn't call him by 6 a.m., I didn't catch him -- because he was in the strawberry fields or with his day lilies."
Darrow died in 1983 at the age of 94. The strain of strawberry that bore his name has largely been supplanted, but his family's pick-your-own place continues to operate as Darrow Berry Farms, under the ownership of his granddaughter and her husband.
With the season drawing to a close, only a handful of pickers worked the Darrow field on Bell Station Road on a recent day.
"Memorial Day was the worst day," said Darrow employe Jeanne Caulkins, who actually meant it was the best. "It looked like a Redskin game, with all the cars in the parking lot."
"Darrow was the pioneer pick-your-owner in Washington," said George Butler, 56, a staunch admirer of the horticulturalist. "He was a very brilliant man. We made him a lifetime member of the Strawberry Growers of North America."
George and Shirley Butler, who grew up in Silver Spring, started out growing peaches but couldn't compete with the chain stores. The Butlers began with a quarter of an acre, and today, less than five miles from bustling Montgomery Village, they own 50 acres. Their four grown children own 218 acres.
Like most pick-your-owners, they are increasingly diversified, offering peaches, blackberries, raspberries, pumpkins and more.
Family aside, the Butlers employ two persons full time in summers and hire 20 teen-age pickers in season and another 30 to work in the market end of the operation. During the season, they rent seven portable toilets for the crowds.
"This is just my favorite place," said Hestlene Martin, who had driven from her home in Northeast Washington to the market, where pickers check in and are directed to the fields. "I can't see June go by without coming here."
In the berry patch, pickers worked their way on hands and knees along 12 rows. At one end of the 2 1/2-acre field was the Ford family from Frederick.
Lois Ford, who came with her husband Greg and 3-year-old son Timothy, said she had "picked here at Butler's since I was Timmy's size."
"Dad, you need more help?" Timmy asked. Negative.
"Mom, do you need help?" Timmy asked.
"No, Daddy needs the help, honey," she said. "Mommy's all caught up."