When my family moved to Oregon from Southern California in 1988, we were quick to adopt elements of the Pacific Northwest culture. We stopped carrying umbrellas when it rained, instead preferring to either dodge raindrops bareheaded or wear a hooded jacket when the rain was torrential. We became even more committed recyclers and created an elaborate sorting station in the basement or garage to house our plastics and papers, until we could take them an appropriate drop-off point. And we became devoted consumers of u-pick fruit.
Several times each summer, we’d make the trek out to Sauvie Island to pick strawberries, blueberries, peaches and apples (we’d pick up the windfall heritage apples from the Bybee-Howell House orchard. You’re not allowed to pick the fruit from the trees there, but the newly fallen apples are still quite edible and make excellent applesauce). My mom would turn into a fruit processing machine upon our return home, making batches of jam and apple butter, and freezing bags of slice peaches and applesauce (in mid-winter, spicy homemade applesauce is the best after dinner treat).
The first couple of years after I moved to Philadelphia, I didn’t look for places in the area to pick fruit, and instead planned a vacation out to Portland each summer, timing it to coincide with blueberry season. Eventually, I couldn’t keep up the mid-July trip home and so found myself searching for other places to pick. Over the last few years, I’ve picked fruit at several area farms.
My very favorite is Mood’s Farm Market in Mullica Hill, NJ. Their prices are reasonable, they grow a variety of fruit (sweet and sour cherries, blackberries, blueberries, concord grapes, peaches and more) and they have a farm market where they sell the most delicious apple cider doughnuts. Unfortunately, they don’t grow strawberries, which is what I want to pick this weekend, so yesterday I found myself searching for other area farms that offer u-pick strawberries. I made a bunch of phone calls and the results of my research, along with u-pick ettiquette and more resources are after the jump. Unfortunately, the farms are only going to be helpful for those of you in the PA/NJ/NY area, but the tips are still good.
First off, the u-pick tips. Any time you’re going to a new farm, it’s best to call ahead and ask a few questions. You want to know how much the fruit will cost, as prices can range dramatically from farm to farm on the same crop. You should also ask whether they provide containers into which to pick, or if you should bring your own. The blueberry farm I grew up going to always provided the containers and didn’t charge an extra fee for them. However, at Mood’s Farm, you’re responsible for your containers (they do have quart boxes that you can buy, but use too many and you’ll find that you spent an extra $5 on packaging).
If you aren’t picking at an organic farm, you should also ask the farmers what kind of pesticides they use. Some places only spray at the beginning of the season, before the plants have budded out. That means that the actual fruit has never come into contact with the chemicals (that doesn’t mean that the fruit will be chemical-free, though). This is a particularly important question to ask if you’re in the habit of nibbling while picking. You don’t want to chow down if the fruit might have a pesticide residue on it.
Speaking of eating the fruit while picking, I’m here to tell you that it’s okay to taste while you’re out in the field. If the farm grows several varieties of the same fruit, it’s actually a good idea to taste each one before you get down to the serious business of picking, so that you can determine which variety you like the best. Farmers know and expect that you will sample the wares as you go and factor that into the price they charge. This doesn’t mean that it’s acceptable to pick a container of fruit and then settle down with a picnic lunch that includes said fruit before you’ve paid. It does mean that you can taste a few strawberries while you pick, and savor their sweet, sun-warmed flavor. You certainly don’t have to be like my cousin Harlan, who refused to taste even a single blueberry when he picked, convinced that it was tantamount to stealing.
This weekend, I’m planning on heading out to the farm run by A.L. Gaventa and Son in Logan Township, NJ. I picked it because it’s open on Saturday, is approximately half an hour from Philly and doesn’t seem to be too agro-tainment-y (that is, a farm that combines the work of agriculture with the business of entertainment. These farms are great if you want to make a morning of it with the family, but not so good if you just want to pick in peace). I don’t know how much their berries cost per pound, but I’m imaging it will be somewhere around $1.50 to $2. For those of you looking for more options, here are some of the other places I called:
Springdale Farms in Cherry Hill, NJ – They’re the closest u-pick strawberry farm to Philadelphia, but their berries are $2.25 a pound and I got a serious agro-tainment vibe from them when I called. However, for those folks in Philly or South Jersey who don’t want to go far for their picking, this would be a good choice.
Russo’s Orchard Lane Farms in Allentown, NJ – This sounds like a wonderful choice for u-pick strawberries, but it’s near Trenton, making it too far from Philly to work for me. It would make a great spot for New Yorkers looking to get out of the city for the day, though. Their berries are only $1.35 a pound and the woman I talked to on the phone was helpful and sweet.
Rowand Farms in Glassboro, NJ – Half an hour from Philly, Rowand Farms would be a good option for folks coming from Philly. They’re not open on Saturdays, Sunday is their weekend day of choice, which is particularly nice since so many farms operate in reverse. Their strawberries are $1.50 a pound, which is a fair price.
For more farm options, the New Jersey Department of Agriculture has a helpful website that allows you to sort by roadside market (good for those of you who want farm fresh produce without having to work for it) or u-pick farm. The website allows you to browse by county, making it easy to find the closest farm.