Like most farmers, Chris Eckert plants, tills, and tends his crops. But when it’s harvest time, he invites the public to share in the work. Eckert, who oversees 500 acres spread across three pick-it-yourself, or “U-pick,” farms in southern Illinois, is among a growing number of farmers who offer consumers the experience of harvesting their own food.
“U-pick farms have become a trend as issues such as eating locally continue to rise,” says Blake Slemmer, who created and maintains Pickyourown.org, which provides a list of nearly 10,000 U-pick farms.
U-pick programs provide some of the freshest produce available. “You are able to pick the best-looking fruit with your own hands,” Slemmer says. “You know you are getting it straight from the vine.”
Most farms charge approximately 25 percent less than market prices, according to Slemmer. There are also additional, if less tangible, benefits: The endeavor generates interest in sustaining family farms and provides a glimpse of rural life.
“People enjoy spending a day outside and learning where produce comes from,” Eckert says.
The month of May starts U-pick season in most areas. Follow these tips for do-it-yourself harvesting:
• Call ahead. Weather conditions can alter picking calendars.
• Approach a U-pick farm like any outdoor activity; pack water, snacks, sunscreen,bug repellent, and a sun hat.
• Inquire about picking containers. Many farms, especially apple orchards, provide them, but others do not. Take shallow containers so delicate berries won’t be crushed under their own weight.
Learn the signs of ripeness before you pick
• Strawberries mature from green to white to red and should be at least three-quarters red before picked. Look for the firmest, plumpest, reddest fruit. Season: May and June
• Other berries, such as blueberries and raspberries, should fall into your hand hull- or stem-free at the slightest pull. If hulls or stems remain, the fruit is not fully ripe. Season: Blueberries: June through August; raspberries: July through October
• Mature peaches will separate from their branches easily. Season: July and August
• Dropped apples around a tree usually indicate the fruit is ready to be picked. Apples ripen from the outer edges of the tree inward, so work the periphery first. Season: September and October
• Grapes develop rich color―green or red, depending on the variety―a slightly soft texture, and a chalky bloom on the surface. Snip the stems of a cluster, and lay grapes gently in a basket to avoid crushing. Season: September and October