A Berry Picking Time

Another favorite outdoor activity I had growing up, besides camping? Berry picking.

Every late-spring my mom would take me berry picking at the local farms. We tried to do two trips a year: strawberries and some other local fruit (blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, or apples). Living in New England meant shorter picking seasons so we could miss a specific harvest by a week depending on how well the fruit developed.

This meant my mom would announce one morning that she’d be heading to the farm in a few days and ask if I’d be willing to help her. When I was younger, I had little choice in the matter but I loved it anyway; and when I was older it would depend on my work schedule for the week.

I found on the days I had to work or go to school and miss helping her were always disappointing. She’d try to adjust her schedule to accommodate me, but sometimes the weather and harvest wouldn’t cooperate.

Our Family Traditions

Strawberries were a must in our family.

If we could only do one picking a year it was strawberries. We had a rhubarb plant growing in our backyard so my dad always requested a strawberry rhubarb pie every summer. My mother never believed in doing anything half-measure so she would make sure to bake him a pie with only the freshest ingredients: rhubarb and strawberries she picked herself.

With the haul, she would preserve a batch of strawberries in syrup. My mom would freeze this mixture and thaw it for Christmas morning every year. Our favorite traditional Christmas meal, besides the evening feast, was homemade scones, clotted cream, and those syrupy strawberries picked earlier in the year.

There was something wonderful in knowing that I helped make Christmas breakfast a little more special by helping pick those berries. During the cold, dark New England months it brought a little bit of spring sunshine for the day.

Another fun tradition that started while strawberry picking was the story about a mouse visiting his relatives whenever we picked. No matter the farm and no matter the location (I happen to know he’s moved down South), my mom and I would create this elaborate story about his adventures over the past year and all the fun he was having while visiting.

It was one of those fun traditions that started one day when my mom spotted a mouse in the patch we were picking in. I think she started talking about it to make sure I wasn’t startled or to keep herself from being startled, so a story began about why he was there. Our stories grew over the years, though we’ve never physically seen him again.

berrypicking

Jai helping pick strawberries this year. Photo credit: Michelle Melton Photography

Like all my favorite traditions and childhood memories, I’ve wanted to share them with Jai in some small way. I didn’t even wait for him to be born before I took him berry picking: I was between 5 to 7 months pregnant when I went picking for strawberries, peaches, and blueberries.

Last year, we took him peach and blueberry picking while he was in my carrier. This year we’ve gone strawberry and peach picking so far (blueberries are around the corner). Because peaches are on a tree, it was easier for him to physically help this year, though he may have grabbed several under-ripe ones for Ash, who’s a fan.

Jai is a blueberry lover,  and the farm we go to has such tall bushes that he’ll be able to help me again, so I know most of the fruit he picks will be put straight into his mouth and squished into my shirt. I have accepted and plan to be prepared for it.

Prepping for the Trip

So far Jai seems to be enjoying each trip we take to a farm, and it’s important that it stays that way, especially considering how hot it can get in the South. If he starts expressing a disinterest, I will probably opt to either take a break from picking or go another time by myself.

But what also helps is making sure I go to each farm prepared. I have a short list of items I make sure to bring on each trip for him, the berries, and myself.

  • A basket, bag, or container to transfer the fruit: this is to protect the fruit on the way home. Sometimes the containers/bags you get at the farm are flimsy and result in crushed fruit by the time I arrive home. Additionally, some farms charge you extra if you buy one of their plastic containers (though this makes a nice souvenir).
  • Bug spray & sunscreen: some farms have shade but it’s always good to have extra protection from the sun. And it’s never fun to be bitten by pests while picking.
  • Large hats (for adult and child): Additional protection from the sun and to help minimize heat stroke if you are picking in full sun.
  • Cash: While many places have card capabilities, sometimes their reader doesn’t work or there’s a cheaper price if paying with cash.
  • Drinking water: To avoid dehydration and sun-sickness, make sure to bring enough water for both you and your little one. Don’t forget to remind little ones to drink often especially if they are in full sun for a period of time.
  • Trip-related snack: Get little ones excited by bringing a snack relating to the trip: blueberry muffins for blueberry picking; strawberry fruit leather for strawberry picking; etc.
  • Rinse water (optional: fruit spray): This is for washing your fruit after you’ve paid. Nothing tastes better than sun-warmed fruit freshly picked and why wait until you get home? Rinse water also functions for hand cleaning in case the farm doesn’t have full facilities.
  • Paper towels: Fruit and hand drying.
  • Biodegradable/environmentally friendly soap or antibacterial wipes: To clean hands after picking. Some farms use herbicide and pesticides and if your little ones want to eat after picking it’s important to clean their hands. Good for locations without full facilities.
  • Optional – Cooler with ice: If you have a long trip home or a particularly sensitive fruit (raspberries are delicate) it’s a great way to store fruit for the ride home.
  • Optional – Child Carrier/Stroller: I will be carrying Jai for the rest of this year and depending on his interest/ability level, next year as well. This is a great way to contain little ones (who are willing) if they lose interest and you need to finish picking.
  • Optional – Cooling towel: Great for yourself or your little one. You wet these clothes and wrap them around your neck to help cool your body down. Good if you know you’ll be in full sun.
  • Optional – Change of clothes: Depending on the time of day you go, the weather, and the activity level of your child, having a change of clothing (including shoes) is important. Some farms are muddy or if you have a little one who gets into some fruit and starts squishing it, you’ll want to be prepared with an extra change of clothing for the ride home.

Additional recommendations: the earlier you go picking, the better. Many farms start their own picking around the same time they open to the public (though others may start an hour earlier), so you’ll get the first crack at the fruit that ripened overnight. You will also be picking when it’s cooler and more pleasant.

Ask farmhands for recommendations. Some farms tell you about specific rows to pick in for the best fruit, but not all. See if they have any suggestions for selecting the best fruit or what to avoid. We’ve run into a lot of friendly farmhands who are more than happy to share a fun fact or story about the location.

When you finish your pick, check out what else the farm has to offer. Many places have additional fruits for sale that’s pre-picked for you or the peach farm we visit has a petting zoo that Jai expressed some interest in. It’s a great way to support a local, independent business and you never know what future interest you might spark in the process.

Expectations

Having little to no expectations helps as well.

Things happen. Toddlers can’t stay still long enough or start getting rough with the plants. Kids previously excited about the trip, turn grumpy and sullen as soon as you pull in…moods and feelings towards the adventure changes and so it helps to be flexible to the group’s needs.

Going in with the expectation that a pick may not happen or be fruitful helps prevent me from being disappointed or putting pressure on Jai and myself. Almost all farms have an option to purchase pre-picked fruit (and more!) so walking away with a half-picked u-pick-it bag and a full one of farm-picked isn’t a bad thing. There’s always next year.

If this is something you’ve never done before prior to bringing little ones, considering the first visit as a dry run will help as well. Don’t plan to pick but have your little ones walk around the field and watch other pickers. It might spark their interest enough to do it right then or on a future trip. Either way, you’ll most likely walk out of there with fresh fruit from the pre-picked batches.

Continuing the Fun

There are a lot of great recipes out there for fruit: salsas, cobblers, fruit leathers, etc. All you have to do is a quick search online. I recommend finding recipes that allow for you to freeze the fruit or preserve it for later in the year. Ash’s work always benefits when I go picking – for several weeks I send him in with new and different desserts relating to the most recent haul.

Like us, I encourage creating a fun story with your little ones, one that continues with each trip you take to a farm. It doesn’t have to be about a mouse: it could be a bug, bird, person, or sprite that captures your little one’s imagination. It’s such a great way to share nature and enjoy the summertime.

Have you gone berry picking before and what was it like for you? What fun adventures did you have? Did you bring little ones with you and how did that go? Leave your stories in the comment section.


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Featured photo credit: Michelle Melton Photography

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