Picking your own fruit and vegetables can be fun for the family, but better with some forethought
Apples and pumpkins are suddenly everywhere, luring families and friends to pick-your-own-farms across the country. While these places provide agrarian entertainment year round, Fall seems to brings out the most people and the most major league traffic jams, like the one I observed in East Hampton, New York just last weekend. With proper planning, you’ll be creating memories for years to come.Here’s how to get to the farm and back with the maximum fun-per-mile:
1. Call Ahead
That light shower in the city could have been a hailstorm knocking golf ball-sized holes in pumpkins. Strawberries and blueberries can get waterlogged after a hard rain. Best to wait a few days for the sugars to concentrate a bit. A call will help you compare prices and agricultural practices that may not be addressed on the farm’s website. For example, one place I know produces the most beautiful berries you’ve ever seen outside of a Driscoll box. But they’re hardly natural. Those berries get squeaky clean through a fungicide cocktail that you wouldn’t want on your breakfast cereal. Even though a pick-your-own-trip seems to be all about family fun, a few farms have age minimums for visitors (based perhaps on some toddler bush-crushing in the past).
2. Know What Things Cost
You’ll want an idea of what things should cost. Some farmers try to compete on price. Some may charge more than the supermarket because they are using organic or sustainable growing practices. That does not mean that the supermarket price is the real cost of bringing food to the table. Supermarkets may use something like pumpkins as a loss leader to bring in shoppers. That said, some farmers do price at levels that leave a bad taste in my mouth. If three local farms have pumpkins at 39 cents a pound and another at 69 cents a pound and there is no difference in growing methods, well. . . you know what to do.
3. Get There Early
If you want your pick of the produce, especially something like berries, it’s best to arrive at the farm early, when fruit is at its peak and crowds are thinnest.
4. Bring Your Own Containers
I looked over a raspberry bush with envy this fall as a woman filled her wide, shallow basket with berries. It was easy to carry and could be filled to the brim without crushing the fruit. I, of course, was clutching a cardboard pint box and trying not to spill it as I reached far into the bush. At least I had remembered to bring an insulated cooler with water bottles frozen solid, to protect the fruit from field to fridge. In fact some farmers may charge you for containers. That’s generally okay—but not if the container is a huge cardboard flat that you don’t have a prayer of filling late on a Sunday afternoon.
5. Pick Carefully and Tread Lightly
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Occasionally a farm visit can feel like spring break, with people running through the fields searching for the next great row or the biggest pumpkin. Plants are the farmer’s livelihood and don’t respond well to being trod on. Ask the farmer for advice on where to pick and what to look for—ensuring that your clan is picking mature fruit that doesn’t needs ripening time.
6. Real Food Looks Different
Tomatoes shipped 1,000 miles are picked dead green and then gassed with ethylene to ripen and redden for supermarket shoppers. Some California strawberries sent to New York are given a good dose of water before being picked, to plump them for the box. Real food grown using heirloom seeds and sustainable methods may not look exactly like what you are used to getting in the supermarket, but it will be far tastier when the time from farm to table is measured in hours instead of days. For those of you still vibrating from seeing Food Inc., ask the farmer about the growing methods employed. Is he or she using pesticides or fungicides? If so, how recently was a field sprayed? Even farmers that usually practice sustainable growing methods may apply products as a last resort to save their crop.
7. Look For Deals
Farms may offer discounts if you’re picking a bunch or take their pre-separated seconds. So, if you’re planning on making gallons of sauce for a block party, you might be able to save as much as 50 percent.
8. Dress for Success
When walking the fields, it’s best to wear a hat, sunscreen and clothes that permit you to bend easily and wash (yourself and your crop) without a whole lot of fuss. Good, strong shoes with tread help. For some reason, on one visit I was wearing a pair of bowling shoes when I hit the fields. They looked fabulous but were so slippery that I spent a good part of the time on my keister.
9. Different Strokes
Some farms really go all out with agri-tainment, such as petting zoos, corn mazes, hayrides or pumpkin catapults. Others are, well, farms. If you have young children on the trip, taking a break with a puppet show may be just what the doctor ordered. But if you have come to pick, you might want to find a farm that focuses more on food than fun. Some farmers can be grumpy, too. Their people skills, slim to begin with, are further challenged when carloads of people are tromping through their fields. I prefer to find a place where the farmer is proud of what he does, wants to tell you about it, and will happily show you around.
Buy Direct and Save (a Farm)
They say the closer to the land you work, the less money you make. A U-pick farm visit certainly brings you closer to the land and your food. Spend a few hot hours in the fields and you’ll have a greater appreciation for what farm workers do every day. The dollars you spend there do make a difference. Farmers who sell their produce through distributors receive perhaps 30 cents on the retail dollar. When you make a purchase at the farm, you know the farmer is keeping the majority of your payment. And with farmers often powering small communities, that’s good news for all of us. Get started here.
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