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U-pick strawberries vanishing in Hillsborough

PLANT CITY — Carolyn Wagner remembers her first trips to the strawberry fields, about 80 years ago.

She would bend over the plants and fill one-quart containers with warm, sweet berries at the U-pick farms in Plant City. Her mom and aunt took her along, picking as many as 50 quarts to make jam.

"We always enjoyed it because we got a lot of laughs out of it," she said. "Sometimes we'd hear the alligators hollering back there in the swamps."

The fields would be packed at the beginning of the U-pick season in March, and if the berries in one field didn't look perfect, there was always another nearby.

Now it's harder to find farms that offer this time-honored tradition. Many growers opted years ago to clear their fields and replant with a spring crop of vegetables to boost dwindling profits.

Others have pulled back more recently, fearing lawsuits in a society that has grown more impersonal and litigious.

"With the liability cases now, you can't afford to always open. That's unfortunate," said Wetherington Farm's owner, Lane Wetherington. He stopped offering U-pick at his 4-acre Dover farm this year.

Decades ago, almost every strawberry farmer offered U-pick. It was a good way to harvest all the berries.

"You made a quarter where you weren't going to make a quarter before," said Gary Parke of Parke Family HydroFarms, a hydroponic farm that offers a pricier, organic U-pick.

His brother, Bobby Parke, runs the 350-acre Parkesdale farms in Plant City. He stopped offering U-pick long ago.

He makes more money by ripping out the plants and growing crops such as squash.

Before California and Mexico became huge competitors with Florida's strawberry crop, that wasn't necessary. But now , many farmers grow two or three crops a year.

Anyway, people don't pick like they used to, farmers say. People used to harvest dozens of quarts — sometimes 100 — to make jam, said Fancy Farms' owner, Carl Grooms.

"A lot of people nowadays like to just get a few quarts to have some berries for Sunday dinner or to make a daiquiri," he said.

Grooms offered U-pick on his Plant City farm in the 1970s and '80s, but no longer.

Still, he remembers those days well.

"You'd have 400 to 500 people a day come out," he said. "The kids would come and play, and the girls would lay out in bathing suits to get a tan. It was a great thing."

Although offerings have declined, a few large commercial farms still offer U-pick in Hillsborough County. Favorite Farms on McIntosh Road in Dover opened Thursday, and about a dozen people picked berries under the afternoon sun.

Several snowbirds spending the winter in Zephyrhills showed up.

Nola Armstrong, originally from Indiana, has come each year for the past 22 years.

"I just love it," said Armstrong, 73. "They're delicious."

Donna Cisar of St. Petersburg filled the trunk of her sport utility vehicle with decorative baskets of berries. She planned to give them to friends.

"The rest are for me," she said.

Another large farm, Strawberry Station in Plant City, will probably open next week, said the owner's wife, Sue Harrell.

Neither farm is making big profits on U-picks, said Harrell and the manager of Favorite Farms, Lisa Fox. They do it as a service to the community and to preserve tradition.

"I get the most pleasure from the school groups that come out," Fox said. "For a lot of them, it's the first time that they've seen how a strawberry grows."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Fast facts

If you go

Although many of the larger Hillsborough farms no longer offer U-pick, a few organic farms still do. Strawberry Passion Farms, a new 1.3-acre organic field in Dover, will probably open in late April or early May, and Jordan Farms in Dover most likely will open around Easter.

On the Web: To find out which fields are open, go to the Florida Strawberry Growers Association Web site:

For the best picking: Growers' tips for pickers include:

• Dress comfortably, wear a hat and bring sunscreen.

• Bring your own containers to take the berries home in.

• Select only firm ripe berries, and be careful not to remove the tops of the berries.

U-pick strawberries vanishing in Hillsborough 03/21/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 21, 2009 10:18pm]
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