Last week, my good friend blogged about going strawberry picking with her husband and two kids. They visited a "pick your own" farm and picked 20 pounds (yes, POUNDS) of strawberries. All it cost them was 2 hours of their time and about $30.
If you're familiar with how much strawberries cost at the supermarket—and I surely am, since they are my favorite fruit in the world and I wait ALL YEAR for strawberry season—then you know how expensive they can be. One quart of strawberries (approximately 2 pounds of fruit) at the store can cost up to $4 to $8, depending on the season and region where you live—especially if you buy organic, since strawberries are one of the most heavily sprayed crops).
But monetary cost is only one part of the food equation. In truth, these berries often travel hundreds or thousands of miles from the farms where they were grown to the shelves in your supermarket. That has a high environmental cost—but even if you don't care much about that, it still affects the flavor, freshness and nutrient levels of your food. The longer any fruit or vegetable goes from farm to table, the more vitamins are lost along the way. And I won't even get into the taste! When was the last time you ate a vine-ripened, sunshine-warmed strawberry—or any fruit or vegetable for that matter—straight off the plant? If you said "Never," or that you "Can't remember," then my friend, it is time for you to make like a farmer and head to the fields pick your own.
You can find complete listings of pick-your-own farms near you by visiting the website www.PickYourOwn.org. You'll find farms where you can pick berries, apples, herbs and more, but typically, each of these different foods has their own short season of availability. In the Midwest, strawberry season will only last a couple more weeks, for example, but then it'll be time for blueberries and raspberries. I decided to visit Stokes Berry Farm, about 40 miles from my home. (I don't normally drive that far for anything, but for strawberries, I was willing to make an exception.)
1. Save Money. Most of the time, picking your own produce saves you money because you don't have to pay the added costs of someone else picking, packaging, shipping, and shelving your produce. Plus, buying in bulk tends to be less expensive than buying smaller quantities.
2. Pick Perfect Produce. Does it bother anyone else that you can pick an individual apple by perusing the apple stand, but HAVE to buy the whole quart of berries as-is, even when you can clearly see that some of them have seen better days? When you pick your own, you can control that—and choose perfection every time! No more moldy, squishy, under- or overripe fruits to surprise you at the bottom of your container!
3. Connect with the Earth. When I went strawberry picking, I felt a deeper connection to the earth than I do when I head to the big box grocery store in the suburbs. Upon exiting my car after parking, the sweet aroma of strawberries filled the air. It was heavenly! Every so often, I'd just stop picking, sit, and admire the scene, the quietness of the countryside, and the smell of berries in the air. I got my hands dirty, sat on the earth, waded through the rows of plants, and lived to tell about it. If you have kids, bring them along. Most kids today have never even seen what a fruit or vegetable plant looks like. They'll learn that, plus how to pick the best ones, how to tell when it's ripe, and what kind of bugs like to live in the rows of plants. It's educational and fun for the whole family!
4. Get Better Nutrition. Like I mentioned above, fruit and vegetables have more nutrients when you eat them as soon as possible after they're picked. Who knows how many days the California berries were in transit and sitting on the shelf in your Ohio supermarket! When you pick foods at the peak of freshness, they also taste better. And you can also freeze or can your surplus right away to preserve as much of that nutrition as possible—and enjoy it into the coming months.
5. Keep Farmers in Business. When you buy food directly from a farmer, you help support his self-owned business. Most of the food in America is either imported or grown by a handful of very large and powerful corporations that are putting the self-employed farmers out of business one by one. Like any small business, it's hard to compete with the "big guys." And yes it's true that sometimes, local food can cost more. But for many people who have the means to support it (or simply choose to in some cases), they're paying for so much more—the livelihood of people in their own communities who work hard at one of the most grueling and thankless jobs—feeding US. As I kneeled, crouched, bent over and sifted my way through rows of these berries in the hot sun, I thought about how much work was involved in planting, weeding, watering and harvesting them. It's easy to complain about the high prices of food when you buy it at a store and don't really think about what goes into it. But when you do the work yourself—you have a newfound appreciation for how your food dollars cover the hours of physical labor involved in bringing food to your store.
6. Remember Where Your Food Comes From. When was the last time you really thought about where you food came from—besides that you got it at the store. When you shop at the grocery store, you have no real connection to the farm or farmers who worked so hard to grow the food that nourishes you. What are their farming practices? Do they use pesticides? How are their farm hands treated? Visiting your local farmers market or pick-your-own farms can help you establish a connection to the place where you food comes from—and you'll appreciate every bite even more.
My first experience on a pick-your-own farm was fabulous! I made it home with 13 pounds of fresh, fragrant strawberries, and they were the sweetest, juiciest fruits I have ever eaten in my life. I ate them by the handfuls for several few days, made my first strawberry pie (this recipe from Cook's Illustrated is detailed and took several hours, but was SO worth it), and then froze the remaining berries so that I can enjoy that perfect taste and nutrition long after strawberry season is over. In fact, I've decided that this farm picking experience is going to be the first of many. I already have plans to go back to pick more berries before this short season is over, and then to return when blueberries are ready for picking. I highly recommend that you try it yourself, too!
Here's a portion of my 13-pound loot (after I ate several handfuls)!
Have you ever picked your own fruits or vegetables from a local farm—or from your own garden? Now that you know a few good reasons why it's important, are you more likely to try it?