Katelyn Chung, 5, scampers down a wide grassy path between rows of blackberry bushes at Butler’s Orchard in Germantown, Md. (pop. 55,419), searching for the plumpest berries to plop in her bucket—and mouth.
“Make sure they’re not red,” Michele Chung tells her daughter and son, Tyler, 3, of Germantown. “Pick the black ones, buddy. Don’t squish them.”
Michele, 34, remembers herself at Katelyn’s age, picking wild blackberries with briars on a hillside near her house. “I would have had scratches all over,” she tells Katelyn. “And when grandpa was little, he used to pick berries to make money.” The memories make the young mother smile.
The irresistible pleasure of picking fresh-off-the-vine fruits and vegetables is offered at thousands of farms across the United States, beginning in May when strawberries turn scarlet and ending in October when the last pudgy pumpkins snap off the vine. While customers picked their own produce 50 years ago so they could save money by canning and freezing, many of today’s customers pick their own because it’s a bushel of fun.
At Butler’s, customers not only pick berries, but choose and cut their own fresh flowers from a patch that is a feast for the eyes—pink snapdragons, golden sunflowers, black-eyed Susans and blue salvia. Jennifer France, 20, and her boyfriend, Nick Candela, 19, of Rockville, Md., roam the rows, selecting and snipping stems and adding them to their burgeoning bouquet.
“The flowers are really fresh and you get a variety,” says France, who picks a fragrant handful for $7.
Offering a selection of pick-your-own crops—even Christmas trees—keeps Butler’s Orchard in business, says Susan Butler, 48. She and her brothers Wade, 50, and Todd, 51, run the farm started by their parents, George and Shirley, in 1950. As with most farms, Butler’s Orchard has changed with the times and the tastes of Americans.
“In the old days, customers would pick five flats of fresh strawberries and freeze them because you couldn’t get strawberries year-round,” Susan says. Today, while supermarkets stock fresh produce year-round, people still enjoy handpicking a couple of quarts of vine-ripened berries to make shortcakes and other desserts.
Happy days and apples
The aroma of wood-smoked barbecue beckons from the country cafe at Ferrara’s Happy Apple Farm in Penrose, Colo. (pop. 4,070). Owner Tony Ferrara, 51, gives a hearty greeting to some apple pickers and points out his rules posted on the door: “Please sample apples so you get what you like!” and “You must have fun!”
Ferrara’s parents, Tom and Helen Ferrara, bought the farm in 1984 and planted a grove of semidwarf apple trees, short enough to pick without ladders. Tony added berries and pumpkins to the farm, along with the popular cafe. He also presses apples for homemade cider.
“It’s just good, clean fun,” says his wife, Hope. “Kids can see where an apple actually comes from.”
Marian and Michael Bukowski and their children, Mia, 6, and Michael, 9, of nearby Colorado Springs, have brought a red wagon from home to haul their harvest.
“The kids look forward to this every year,” Michael says. Mia takes a running leap at a low-hanging Jonathan apple and grabs it. She’s missing her front teeth, but that doesn’t stop her from biting into the apple.
Elsewhere in the orchard, Russ and Jo Root of Colorado Springs stand in the thick of the trees picking the organically grown apples because they’re healthful. “We like picking our own because we know what we’re getting,” says Russ, 63. “I’ve started looking at things I’m eating and everything has something I can’t pronounce.”
Adds Jo, 63: “We’ve been doing this for 40 years. I like canning, freezing and drying apples. I make a mean apple butter and apple pie.”
As many as 3,000 people flock to Happy Apple Farm on weekends in the fall and pick the apple trees clean.
Hannah Kummer, 8, practices her peach-eating stance—feet wide apart so juice trickling down her chin and arms misses them—in the orchard at Eckert’s Country Store and Farm in Belleville, Ill. (pop. 41,410).
Since 1837, the Eckert family has farmed, changing through the generations from growing grain to growing fruit, and from operating a slaughterhouse and egg business to running a bustling country store, bakery, custard shop and garden center. Today, the family operates the nation’s largest pick-your-own orchards at their farms in Belleville and nearby Millstadt (pop. 2,794) and Grafton (pop. 609). The Eckerts grow more than 500 acres of fruit, including 210 acres of peaches, for picking.
For Hannah and her sister, Madison, 6, a trip to the peach orchard is a July tradition when they stay with their grandparents, Brian and Vickki Cordezant of Tilden, Ill. (pop. 922).
Grandpa Brian lifts their little brother, Jackson, 1, into the branches so the tot can reach with both hands and tug a fuzzy peach from the tree. “I was his age when I first started coming here,” says Brian, 44.
Picking peaches “takes them back to nature,” Vickki says about her grandchildren. Plus, the kids enjoy eating fruit that they picked themselves. “The girls love to eat the peaches dipped in caramel, like apples, and with cottage cheese.”
The U-pick peaches cost $1.10 a pound and the grandkids’ harvest comes to $40—“worth every penny,” Vickki says.
Eckert’s Farm is in full swing year-round with country-related entertainment—haunted hayrides, pig races and cooking-with-herbs classes—offered by Chris Eckert, a seventh-generation owner, his wife, Angie, father Lary, cousin Jim, and sister Jill.
At Bolster’s Hilltop Farm in Camino, Calif., 12 varieties of blueberries are grown at 3,000-foot elevation amid the Sierra Nevada. “People come up here and have a great time,” says David Bolster, 48, surveying the surrounding mountains. “Once they get out there and start picking, they get addicted.”
His stepmother, Jan, 77, and daughter Molly, 12, help weigh and bag berries for pickers. David advises first-time pickers to “tickle the berry off. If you have to pull, it’s not ripe.”
The blueberries, which sell for $2.50 a pound, ripen throughout the summer, followed by apples and pumpkins in the fall. Tables under ponderosa pines offer a place to picnic—with a view.
“We have people who walk out of here with 40 or 50 pounds of blueberries,” Bolster says. “They’ll say, ‘These will be pancakes in February.’”
And U-pick memories year-round.