While most farmer's markets in my corner of the Pacific NW start up in May, it just doesn't feel like Summer until the strawberries hit the stands in a delicious wave. Due to the unseasonably warm winter, our fruit season arrived earlier than normal and left me scrambling to adjust for both picking and cooking!
Fortunate for me, a wonderful U-Pick farm is less than 30 minutes away and we managed to partake in the end of the strawberry season.
So what should you expect if this is your first foray onto a U-Pick farm? While every property will have its own rules unique to the terrain and food type, there are some basics:
* While most U-Pick tends to be a family friendly adventure, it is not usually meant for pets. Your best bet is to visit the farm's website and look for a pet policy if you are hoping to have your pooch along for the trip. Most U-Pick operations that I have visited harbor a diverse ecosystem of crop and livestock, which can mean anything from a few chickens to a whole petting zoo. To keep the animals safe (both on the farm and those of visitors), it's generally best to leave four-legged family members at home.
* When considering children, pick crops that will not easily frustrate them. Strawberries are like the gateway crop for getting your youngest kids interested in eating well and learning about farming. As long as your children are old enough to follow the basic rules of harvesting, they are old enough to go on a berry hunt! Give them a basket, show them how to snap the stem of the fruit without hurting the plant and they'll tire themselves out in no time!
* Sunblock is your friend. As you can see in the photos, U-Pick weather is the time when our Seattle skies clear and we get crazy amounts of direct sun. Like little mushrooms wondering why that blazing orb burns the skin, you really need to protect yourself. A typical trip to the farm will involve 30+ minutes of picking in the field, and depending on the property, a whole afternoon of animals, attractions and even shopping. Hats are not a bad idea either.
* Pre-plan what you will use your bounty on. It is so easy to fills baskets and buckets with the bounty of the season, but then reality hits when your kitchen buckles under the weight of pounds upon pounds of perishable berries. Most strawberries in the store are picked early so that they can make the trip to your local market and sell before degrading. When you harvest from a U-Pick, on the other hand, you are truly getting your produce at the peak of freshness. The first night, your family will feast on all of that fruit, and likely make only a tiny dent. Over the next couple of days, you must make some quick decisions or risk wasting those incredible little fruits. Cut and refrigerate any that you believe may be eaten in the next 3-4 days. The rest will need to be preserved either by freezing, canning or dehydration. If you or your family turned out to be super harvesters, the next few days can sap all the fun from your outing when you feel trapped for unending hours in the kitchen.
* Bring cash. Most operations use movable trailers or stands that lack electricity, instead opting to be portable and near to the current crop. I would also recommend bringing more funds than you think you may need. My very first U-Pick experience was a little shadowed by the fact that some of the cash I brought was used on lunch when a local restaurant's system went down and could not take credit. There is no way to estimate the amount of produce you picked and you never want to worry that you or your kids might pick more than you can pay for. In the end, I worried for nothing and could have brought back almost double what I had harvested, but without a scale in the field, I just couldn't be sure.
* It takes effort. If you're healthy and at least reasonably fit, you'll have a great time and a great workout. Bending over for ground crops or climbing ladders for tree fruit is not for everyone though, so consider the health situation of those attending. While many properties might have additional activities for those unable (or unwanting) to pick fruit, you might want to consider alternative ideas for those in your family who may find a farm setting less than ideal.
* Go early. Every day during the season, more fruit will ripen and become available, but the best will go to those arriving to the fields first. If you can only visit in the afternoon, by all means go, but realize that you might have to do a bit more searching. On account of scheduling conflicts and the early harvest, my farm visit occurred at 3:00 in the afternoon. Obviously I found fruit, but I was left to imagine all of the choice berries that were already claimed because of my late arrival.
So how many pounds did I manage to bring home? The short answer is: not as many as I would have preferred. I managed to get to the farm near the end of the harvest and found mostly small berries that were well hidden. Had I realized the season was early and gone even a week sooner, I would have been able to double my yield with the same amount of effort. Finding my box a little light for all of my intended recipes, I opted to supplement my take with a few pints from the farm's commercial plot. All in all, I planned on about 10 lbs and wound up with enough for all of my recipes and even a few quart bags for the freezer.
Wondering what to do with your harvest of strawberries? Click my recipe page to see all of the yummy ways in which I used this bounty!
If you live in the Seattle area, I would recommend Remlinger Farms in Carnation, WA. www.remlingerfarms.com. Their U-Pick crops include strawberries, raspberries and pumpkins with well maintained notices regarding availability on their website and Facebook page. They also offer family attractions and rides that will allow you to make your farm outing a full day experience. Though their bakery and eatery were already closed for the day, we took home a number of their products which included a Dutch Apple Pie and found all of it to be quite delicious.