Hollis Strawberry Festival by the numbers

HOLLIS – When organizers start planning the strawberry festival in January, no one can predict the growing conditions for the signature crop six months later.

This year, the strawberry crop came in a little late, and the pick your own crowds didn’t get into the fields until this week, but there was still enough sunshine to get the berries to the festival on time.

“We are going to have a great strawberry season this year, just a little later because of the cool spring,” said Chip Hardy, vice president of Brookdale Fruit Farm. “We have a good quality crop, no frost or setbacks.”

Kristen Bennett, manager at Lull Farm, made a similar assessment.

“It was a little dry, but the recent rain has helped,” she said. “It’s a beautiful crop, far better than last year.”

Tyler Hardy, wholesale manager at Brookdale Fruit Farm, said the pick-your-own fields would be open starting June 18.

“It’s agritainment, a great way to get people to the farm to learn what we do,” he said.

Lori Dwyer, treasurer of the HWC and chairwoman of this year’s festival is glad the crop is running late.

“It’s good for us,” she laughed. “We don’t have to worry about the fields being picked over.”

The annual Hollis Strawberry Festival, sponsored by the Hollis Woman’s Club (HWC) and the Hollis Town Band, will be held on Sunday, June 22 from 2 to 4 p.m. in Monument Square. For the hundreds who attend, it is an afternoon filled with community spirit, music and, of course, tasty desserts made with local strawberries.

Contrary to popular opinion, the Hollis Strawberry Festival is not hosted by the town of Hollis. The festival was started in 1946 by the Hollis Town Band, who ran it by themselves for many years prior to joining forces with the HWC in 1978. They have shared duties and proceeds since then. The two organizations also cosponsor the Apple Festival in October.

Some folks may think holding the festival involves little more than baking shortcakes and scooping ice cream over the course of a weekend while the band plays, but that is far from accurate. So, exactly what does it take to put on this celebration that the town is well-known for?

Six months in advance

Committee members prepare publicity and posters, and business and corporate donors are sought.

Permits need to be approved by town departments and the middle school needs to be reserved in case it rains.

An auction is held at the HWC luncheon in May, and those funds are what enables the group to purchase the strawberries for the festival in the first place. The order is divided evenly between Lull Farm and Brookdale Fruit Farm, who allow the club to purchase the fruit at wholesale prices. Dwyer said it costs more than $3,000 just to hold the festival.

All the items served at the festival must be purchased in advance: ice cream, heavy cream, rhubarb, bottled water, and other ingredients as well as plates, napkins, spoons and any other items for serving. Plus the stars – the strawberries themselves.

“Brookdale and Lull Farm give us a really good discount, but berries are dear in price,” Dwyer said.

Dwyer said she has been studying the amount of food prepared and how much is left at the end, and has recalculated the quantities to be ordered this year to minimize the number of unsold desserts and maximize profits.

Meanwhile, the band rehearses throughout the year, according to music director David Bailey, and starts rehearsing festival music simultaneously with their Pops concert music until April, when they switch gears and focus exclusively on the festival concert. The program has to be planned and soloists have to be auditioned, and sometimes new music must be ordered.

Volunteer power

Any changes to the dessert menu must also be planned ahead of time, with the challenge of knowing what is in season by the festival date, and trying to forecast what will be popular.

“Last year we experimented with strawberry rhubarb crisp,” said Dwyer. “We made a small amount and it sold out within a half hour.”

Needless to say, the crisp will be back on the menu this year, and in larger quantities. The recipe needed to be adjusted, however, since it was written for a hotel restaurant with commercial equipment but is being baked in 9×13 inch pans in regular household ovens.

Another new item from last year that will be returning is strawberry ice cream. All the ice cream served at the festival is from Doc Davis in Pepperell, Mass.

A hulling party is held at the Congregational Church of Hollis on Friday of festival weekend when the berries are picked up. Anywhere from 30 to 50 volunteers assist with preparing the berries for being served, whether on top of shortcake or with ice cream. Dwyer also has enlisted 14 people to bake the shortcake biscuits.

“This festival is put on by many communities within our community, even the business community,” Dwyer said. “It isn’t just the Hollis Woman’s Club or the Hollis Town Band, but others that make it happen.”

Where the proceeds go

The Strawberry Festival typically raises between $6,000 and $8,000, depending on weather. Each year the HWC awards three $1,000 scholarships: to a Hollis Brookline High School graduate who will be attending a four-year college, a two-year college, and one alternative scholarship to a woman who is returning to school.

In addition, the club donates to numerous charities such as Girls Inc., Harbor Homes, the Boys and Girls Club, and the Nashua Soup Kitchen, to name a few, as well as donating to the Hollis Library, the Congregational Church of Hollis, the Hollis Firemen’s Association and Hollis Brookline First Robotics.

Last year’s gift of $500 to the arts and music programs at Hollis Brookline High School was used to purchase costumes for the theatre company and a concert by a guest jazz performer. Dwyer said the club is also adding a budget line for the Hollis Brookline Middle School.

The band uses their half of the proceeds to buy and maintain instruments, equipment, new music and ongoing expenses such as royalty fees, renting rehearsal space and registering equipment trailers so they can get to performances. Scholarships are awarded each year to band members who will be attending music schools or camps during the summer and for students who are departing for college in the fall.

“There are very expensive instruments that many people can’t afford to own but which help the band sound great, such as bassoons, tubas and the multitude of percussion instruments which the band uses,” said Bailey. “The band tries to buy those so that people will be able to play them. That way if the person decides to drop out of the band for any reason, the band has the instrument to pass on to another player.”

A major expense is the cost of music – with 14-20 songs in a concert like the Strawberry Festival, it would cost more than $1,500 to buy new music, so the band relies on a mix of new and old repertoire to perform.

“One single piece of band music costs anywhere from 75 to 150 dollars,” said Bailey. “The Hollis Town Band has a very large library that it owns but it is always looking to buy new music to keep up with the latest movies, Broadway hits, and pop/jazz arrangements.”

Other equipment that the band invests in is the tables, chairs, the tent that the desserts are sold under, and a trailer to store them all safely and to transport them to the festivals. Over the past few years the band has invested over $7000 just in equipment for the festivals, equipment which the band itself never uses but Bailey says is happy to have purchased so that the festivals can be a big success.