There are a number of U-pick farms in the area where you can find all types of fruits and vegetables, from blueberries to strawberries, depending on the season. Picking produce is a great family activity and usually offers fresher and less-expensive items than one might find at the neighborhood grocery store.
There are a number of places to gather information about the farms, including local newspapers, www.pickyourown.org/FL.htm or signs on the side of the road. Before heading out, make sure to call and verify that the farm is still operational and open to the public. Also, verify the hours of business.
If you decide to go, keep a few things in mind. You will be visiting a working farm, so treat the area with respect. Make sure children are aware of how to pick the produce without damaging the plants. Because safety can be a concern, watch out for farm equipment.
Remember to take plenty of water to drink, and don't forget the sunscreen. You may want to take a change of shoes as some of the fields can be a little muddy.
It is helpful to take your own containers, which may need to be weighed before you begin. Make sure you check in as soon as you get to the field so the owner can debrief you on any special requirements.
The number of U-pick farms seems to be dwindling so I'm always happy to find a new one, or at least one that's new to me.
On a recent Saturday my husband and I spent an hour at the Parke Family HydroFarms at 3715 Tanner Road in Dover. It was well worth our time.
We picked almost 19 pounds of sweet tasting, organic strawberries in what seemed like record time. It's a volume-scale operation; the more pounds you pick the cheaper per pound. We paid about $38. So for $2 a pound, we had perfectly-ripe, pesticide-free berries.
Gary Parke, the farm's owner, loves what he does and welcomes the opportunity to explain the operation to his customers. Using Hydro-Stackers, the trademarked name for Parke's vertical growing system, keeps both the berries and your knees off the ground.
"It's a hydroponic system, which is soilless," Parke explained. "The plants are grown in a nutrient solution."
This system means no bending or kneeling, and the berries are exceptionally clean.
Parke uses a sterile nutrient solution with perlite and vermiculite to hold the plants. This water-based solution allows strawberries to be grown from September through July. "Strawberries grown in the ground are limited because of the soil temperature," Parke said. "As the temperature gets too warm in early spring, the plants quit producing."
Customers pick berries at the farm beginning around Halloween through early July. So picking begins sooner and lasts longer than for those berries grown in the field.
The hydrofarm grows about 30 other items, all hydroponically without pesticides. These crops include many types of greens, tomatoes, lettuce, peas, beans, a variety of herbs and radishes.
Although the farm is a business, Parke enjoys his work. "I have fun at what I do," he said.
He said he likes trying different things, so you don't know exactly what you might find in the Hydro-Stackers when you visit the farm.
If you'd like to go, the farm is open Mondays through Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday noon to 5 p.m. During the summer, the farm closes on Sundays. For more information, call (813) 752-5720 or (813) 927-4049.
Before you leave the house, have a plan as to what you will do with all your produce. Of course, we ate many pounds of the strawberries we picked at Parke farms, but the majority were washed, crushed and frozen. I chose to crush mine prior to freezing so they would take less room in the freezer. I use mine for smoothies and waffle topping so they end up crushed anyway.
A few hours at a U-pick farm can yield your family many pounds of fresh produce. What a great advantage to living in this area.