Imagine sitting down to a dinner of roasted asparagus, chicken with rosemary, butter lettuce salad, and rhubarb pie. Now imagine that you picked the asparagus, rosemary, lettuce, and rhubarb with your own hands.
No matter what state you live in, there are U-pick farms where you can spend a few hours harvesting your own dinner or gathering fruits and vegetables that you can freeze or preserve for later. While the effort can be physically demanding, there’s nothing like knowing that you pulled those carrots from the earth yourself. And in the depths of winter, spreading homemade stone fruit jam on your toast is like tasting a blast of summer.
If that isn’t enough inspiration, keep in mind that picking your own produce can save you 20 to 50 percent per pound compared with what you’d pay at a grocery store or even a local farmers market.
Megan Hallstone, the owner of Columbia Farms U-Pick on Sauvie Island in Portland, notes that picking your own is the best way to purchase local produce, meet your local farmers, and develop relationships with the people and places you get your food from. “We have people who’ve been coming for over 20 years, so those relationships are important to us.”
And sitting in the dirt surrounded by rows of plants as far as the eye can see is a delightful way to spend a late spring, summer, or early fall morning or afternoon with your kids. You’ll get a little dirty and feel more than a little proud when you see the bounty covering your kitchen counter.
“I love seeing and standing where the fruit I eat grew,” says Jimena Galvez, a Portland resident and U-pick enthusiast. “I love conversations where all I see is plants and dirt and sky, but experience connection that is so unique to this activity.”
At U-pick farms, the choice of produce ranges from apples to pumpkins to watermelon, depending on the season and where you live. Picking season can start as early as March and goes through September or October. Farms usually specialize in particular varieties of produce, so you’ll want to research to find one that has the fruits or vegetables you want. Visit pickyourown.org to find farms in your state, as well as crop calendars so you can plan your visits around your favorites.
The farmers will give you any instructions you need and may have picking containers for sale. If you’re harvesting broccoli or asparagus, they’ll give you a knife to cut the stalks.
Some things are easier to harvest than others. Strawberries, for example, tend to be more difficult since they’re so close to the ground and the berries often hide behind big leaves. Raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries are easier (at least for taller kids and grown-ups) since the bushes grow five or six feet high. It’s important to keep in mind that the riper the fruit, the easier it is to pick.
Tips to get the most out of your U-pick
- Early to rise. You’ll want to visit the farm early in the morning. Smaller farms may be picked over by lunchtime. Sofia Kondilis-Hashem, of Bella Organic farm on Sauvie Island in Portland, recommends always calling ahead to make sure the farm is open for picking, that they have sufficient fruit, and that it’s ripe enough. “We update our voicemail daily, and have a rating for how good the picking is on a given day. You don’t want to get here and find that the berries are picked out, or aren’t ripe enough yet.” Ask about minimum charges too, as some farms have these in place. Also ask if the farm has other activities available, such as horse rides, playgrounds, animals to visit, etc.
- Double-check directions and consider writing them down on paper. Many farms are in rural areas that won’t necessarily have GPS signals.
- Ask whether the farm takes credit cards, checks, or only cash. Bring extra cash for the pickles or preserves that the farm may have available. (And if you get tired of picking but still want 10 pounds of blueberries for jam, they often have already-picked fruits available.)
- If organic methods are important to you, inquire about pesticides and fungicides and whether and when the farm uses them. Some farms may be transitioning to organic methods, while others may practice organic farming but don’t have the time or money to get certified.
- Bring hats and plenty of water, slather yourself with sunscreen, and carry snacks. Fields are generally open and have little shade. If you’re bringing the little ones, make sure you have toys for them to play with when they tire of picking.
- Dress appropriately. Wear closed-toe shoes and clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty and stained. Pro tip: Never wear flip-flops! I wear an old pair of shorts or jeans with old sneakers, and just plop myself down on the ground to pick to make it easier on my back and knees.
- BYOB: Bring boxes or other containers to put the fruit in; the weight of the container is subtracted when your pickings are weighed. Some farms offer containers for a minimal cost if you run out. I like to use large yogurt containers or, if I'm feeling energetic, gallon buckets. Also bring along something to put the containers in after you finish picking. Take my word for it—it’s no fun to open your trunk and find the floor covered with blueberries.
- Have reasonable expectations, especially if you’re picking with kids. And be aware of how you’re using your own body—crouching down for 10 or 15 minutes is fine, but you don’t want to spend an hour in one position or doing repetitive motions, or you’ll be sore the next day. Take breaks to walk around and smell the raspberries.
Picking your own produce can change how you feel toward your food and toward the earth. “People don’t have experience being on farms, and [picking your own produce] is a fun way to learn about plants and to connect with where your food comes from, especially for kids,” says Kondilis-Hashem, who has been working at Bella Organic since she was a teenager. With a little planning and a little elbow grease, you and your family can enjoy all the benefits of picking your own.
T. J. Ford is a health and fiscal fitness coach, educator, and writer who usually eats dessert first. She lives with her husband and their cat, Kiwi, in Portland, OR.