by Andrew Coppolino
It’s still a few weeks away yet, but get ready to pick your own strawberries.
Local farms and farm-stores have crops and times that you can pick your own. The you-pick process seems to be fading somewhat, but it it’s always good fun and for kids (and sometimes adults too), it can be educational to learn where your food comes from and how it is grown.
Perhaps the most popular venue for pick-your-own strawberries in the area is Herrle’s Country Farm Market in St. Agatha.
Open season for strawberry picking is usually the middle of June, depending on conditions and weather. Herrles grows a half-dozen or so varieties of strawberries that ripen at different times during the four- or five-week season.
For farmers and business folks, preparing strawberries for you-pick is no bowl of cherries, so be respectful and remember that you have been invited onto someone’s property. The process itself takes some work for growers, and it’s a bit of a worry –from the vagaries of inconsistent southwestern Ontario weather, to pests, to customers damaging the crops.
“It can be stressful,” according to Trevor Herrle-Braun. “And this year probably won’t start until later in June.”
Like so much in the agricultural world, the season actually begins at the end of the previous summer, when strawberry patches are covered with straw for protection. In fact, Herrles grows about 140 acres of wheat so that they have the straw for the berries (however, there is no truth to the myth that the name of the berry was derived from the fact that they are bedded on and covered with straw).
“In the beginning of April, we pick the straw off the plants and place it in the rows,” Herrle-Braun says. “It’s very labour intensive, but the straw does two things. In the rows, it gives pickers a clean area to pick, and the straw beneath the plants keeps the strawberries off the mud as they grow. You just hope you don’t get frost when that straw is removed,” he says. The strawberries are fertilized and then farmers monitor for certain diseases or moulds. “Wet, cool weather is not good for strawberries.”
Herrles has about 12 acres (one acre is about the size of an American football field) of strawberries in production, with about four or five that they prepare for you-pick. Bring your own basket or Herrles can sell you one: you weigh your basket before you pick and after to determine the charge by weight.
“More and more, it’s best to call or check our website ahead of time,” Herrle-Braun says. “Last year we ended up closing a number of days because we were so busy and were picked out.”
Obey the Strawberry Universe! Guidelines for You-Pickers
Timing is everything
You can you-pick any time of day, but earlier is better than later. The heat build-up of the late afternoon can make berries soft and easily bruised and battered. You-pick on cooler, cloudy days. (Save the sunny hot days for a strawberry daiquiri around the pool.)
Take your Ibuprofen!
Then kneel, crouch, bend, stoop, bend again, hunch, roll and slither very carefully along the rows of strawberry plants – they are not called tender fruits for nothing. Be considerate of the farmer and your fellow aching-muscle strawberry you-pickers and you-pick courteously and with care to not damage the plants.
Seeing red … fruit
Strawberries are kind of like your eyes on Visine: you want to get the red out. The ophthalmological aside, look for berries that are totally red – as red as the stop light you rolled through in your hurry to you-pick. Remembering your lower back, gentle move aside any leaves and, pretending you are a strawberry plant psychoanalyst, delve deep into the strawberry plant in search of red.
Pick your heart out – but not like Martha Stewart
It is unlikely that anyone has written a dissertation on picking strawberries (though I would love to read it), but check in with your grower: You-pick farms plant different varieties of berries that ripen at different times over the season – and they may need to be picked using a different method, whether right at the calyx (little green cap) or the peduncle (the stem leading to the calyx).
You-picking is a decidedly family activity; at this point, however, things can get a little sensuous, so you may want to stop the children from reading. Carefully pinch the strawberry plant’s stem (peduncle) right above the strawberry cap (calyx) using your first finger and your strawberry thumb. Pull with a gentle twisting action and allow the berry to snuggle with a sigh into the palm of your hand. It will feel nice. Depending on square-footage in your palm, you can probably get a few berries before setting them in your you-pick basket.
Now, it may be a bucolic image, but suppress your inner Martha Stewart and avoid filling your collection basket to overflowing. A heaping pile of strawberries, while a wonderfully “good thing,” could condemn the ones on the bottom to an early state of jamification. Ask if your PYO farmer has collection baskets.
Be gentle with your picked strawberries
If you are still driving that 1939 Plymouth with the rumble seat, don’t bring it to the strawberry field. Your fresh strawberries need a gentle and soft ride home – not the jarring bounce of sitting just above the axle. And giving them Ibuprofen won’t help.
As for storage, strawberries don’t do well in direct sun and heat. The trunk of the Plymouth is pretty bad for them too. Get them home and into the icebox – or your stomach – as soon as you can. Depending on their condition at time of you-pick, they are at their prime for only two or three days. Alas, strawberry glory is fleeting.
Discard any and all of these guidelines if the you-pick farmers are from a parallel universe and have their own set of rules that you should follow.