Gather Ye Berries While Ye May

Photograph by Flickr user Allie Coremin

Editor’s Note: The following article originally appeared in the 2008 Annual Guide to the Great Outdoors. Relevant information has been updated.

Berries signal summer’s arrival. Harvesting the vibrant fruits of the season at “u-pick” farms provides a fun family outing and the opportunity to learn more about local agricultural bounty. Small fingers can participate in gathering pints for pies and preserves, and a day on the farm with such a goal in mind turns work into play.

Strawberries arrive first on the harvest calendar in the middle of June and are usually available for about four weeks. Blueberries follow around the Fourth of July. Raspberries come along in mid-July for the summer varieties, and fall-bearing raspberries allow for picking until mid-October or until evening temperatures dip to 28° F.

Picking berries yourself gives you the benefit of fresher fruit with uncompromised flavor and nutritional value. It’s also a nice way to introduce children to farms and provides an opening to discuss healthful food choices. And kids can discover the rewards of their efforts in very tangible ways.

Laura McDermott, the Cornell University Cooperative Extension berry support specialist in eastern New York, says that berries grown in our region are varieties intended for immediate consumption, not to be shipped long distances, like those grown on the West Coast and trucked across the country. “Northeastern strawberries, blueberries and raspberries,” she says, “are selected and grown first for their outstanding flavor, in addition to their seasonality and pest-resistant qualities.”

These low-calorie treats are really tasty and high in vitamins, fiber and antioxidants. To maintain the flavor and longevity of the fruit, it’s important to know how to handle the berries once they’ve been picked. “It’s key not to rinse any berry until right before consumption or preparation,” McDermott explains, “as the water can start decay. Once the berries have been picked make sure they’re refrigerated—or at least placed in a cooler in your car if you’re driving for any distance, as cooling will give them a better shelf life. Picking during the cooler morning or late afternoon hours is usually the optimum time, minimizing the fruit’s retention of heat.”

On these outings youngsters can be instructed to select only the fruit that’s ripe. A strawberry should be completely red, with no white shoulders, and should be picked with the cap on to avoid trauma to the plant. Blueberries are ripe when they have turned a purple-blue color, no greenish cast. Blueberries tend to drop into your hand when ripe, and raspberries pull easily from the cluster. For these, kids may want to use two hands, one to hold the container and the other to gently push the berries down into it. Be careful that overripe berries are not in­cluded in the mix, as the decay can spread to adjacent fruit, a process that is accelerated by heat or moisture.

If your outing is really successful and you have more than you’ll need for breakfasts and desserts, Meg Southerland, of Gardenworks, in Salem, offers some tips for preserving the harvest. She notes it’s best not to stack the berries until they’re frozen. When freezing a fragile fruit like raspberries, place them in a single layer on a waxed paper–lined, lipped sheet pan and put in the freezer. Once the berries have hardened you can easily remove them to freezer bags or rigid containers. It’s best to freeze the berries as close to harvest time as possible.

In Gabriels, where views of Whiteface Mountain loom above the fields, Steve Tucker, of Tucker Farms, a Century Farm (so designated by the New York State Agricultural Society as having more than 100 years in continuous family operation), grows potatoes, strawberries and vegetables and offers a corn maze in the fall. “It’s a good plan to call ahead for picking schedules,” Tucker advises. “We’ll suspend our u-pick operation if the crop has been overpicked.” The harvest times can be affected by weather as well.

During your trip to a u-pick farm, you’ll be immersed in natural surroundings, so come prepared. Sensible shoes, a light jacket, sunscreen, insect repellent and a hat are items that can make your experience more enjoyable. And remember farmers invest time and money in the plants from which you pick. Taking care to avoid stepping or kneeling on plants helps ensure their health and longevity.

Visiting a farm provides an opportunity to learn how food is grown. Patti and Bob Rulfs, of Rulfs Orchard, live on their Peru family farm raising vegetables and apples, and have a strawberry and blueberry u-pick operation. “Many people aren’t aware of how food ends up in the supermarket,” says Patti. The teachable mom­ents at a farm can range from botany and ecology to culinary arts and economics.

Then there’s the face-to-face aspect of encountering what you eat, something that doesn’t happen in the grocery store. McDermott says talking to farmers can offer great information, “whether you’re interested in the farm’s history, have questions about how the crops are raised, or most important, to share positive feedback—it’s great to let the farmer know what you liked about your farm experience.”

Below is a partial listing of local farms that offer u-pick berries. Call before leaving home to ensure crops are in season. If you have pressed-cardboard pint or quart containers, bring them for yourself or for the farm to recycle. Learn more about regional u-pick operations through the New York State Berry Growers’ Association.

Clinton County

Pray’s Family Farms
391 Route 9N, Keeseville
(518) 834-9130

Rulfs Orchard
531 Bear Swamp Road, Peru
(518) 643-8636
Strawberries, blueberries

Essex County

Gunnison’s Orchards
3208 NYS Route 9N, Crown Point
(518) 597-9222
Strawberries, apples

Valley View Farm
264 NYS Route 9N, Ticonderoga
(518) 585-6694
Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries

Fulton County

Timberlane Blueberry Farm
311 Mussey Road, Caroga Lake
(518) 835-3938

Meadowlark Farms
397 Stevers Mill Road, Broadalbin
(518) 883-6542
Blueberries, raspberries

Saratoga County

Ariel Farm
194 Northern Pines Road, Gansevoort
(518) 584-2189
Strawberries, blackberries, raspberries

Winney’s Farm
113 Winney Road, Schuylerville
(518) 695-5547

Washington County

County Route 30, Salem
(518) 854-3250
Blueberries, raspberries

Hand Melon Farm
533 Wilbur Avenue, Greenwich
(518) 692-2376
Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries

Hicks Orchard
18 Hicks Road, Granville
(518) 642-1788
Blueberries, raspberries, tart cherries

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