Been a pretty good season in the Pick Your Own strawberry fields. So far anyway.
Cool mornings, bright hot sunny days and then the evenings cool off….Dry. Been damn dry. We could use some rain, but no matter; it is perfect weather to pick strawberries. And people have been taking advantage of the weather and come out. Just like the old days….
Whoops. I guess I have to admit that this is the fortieth year that I have journeyed through a PYO (Pick Your Own) Strawberry season with my still sane pal Anne. We’ve been at it awhile, so it gives us some license to say “good old days”. But I must clarify what I meant when I said that because a general PYO season is now very different than the PYO seasons of the late 1970s and the 1980s for us.
When we planted our first strawberries on the home farm in 1975 we hand planted 6000 plants by hand, with the assistance of my parents and some of their close friends. Like today, friends are enlisted and promised grilled chicken and bottomless beer, so the plants got into the ground just fine and in a timely fashion. Our mentor was our then Sullivan County Agent Bill Lord who predicted that we would have 6000 quarts of fruit to sell the following June. We were told that if we did PYO, we never would have to pick a berry we didn’t want to.
That was the marketing plan. At that time there was one other PYO berry patch; Stu Shepherd ran one in Hartland, Vt. There was a line waiting to get in when we went there. We agreed with Bill that there was a need. People wanted to pick strawberries. And they came and showed up the following June without so much as a newspaper transaction for advertisement. They never came out of the field with less than 6 quarts of berries in tow, no matter how the picking was. They were committed to getting berries to freeze, make shortcake, make jams and jellies. They picked for others who were too old, or had health issues. Some familys would pick up to 500 lbs. of fruit in a season. Others picked fruit for resale. They showed up in droves at 6:30 in the morning, waiting to get in. They came when the weather was fair. They also came when the weather was not so nice. In fact, I would literally have to drive the pickers out of the field when thrunderstorms came up. Talk about commitment.
So I implicated that it’s different today. How so?
They don’t come unless the weather is nice. I have not driven a patron out of the field during a thunderstorm in 25 years, they are long gone after the first clap of thunder in the distance. They don’t like fog. They don’t care much for really hot periods of the day.They hate the insects (don’t we all?) And they don’t pick that much fruit. Many just come for the experience of a farm….more on that in another blog. We calculate that it takes twice as many patrons today to pick the same amount of fruit as the picker of 30 years ago. At least twice as many.
So what happened? What changed it? What ever happened to the Shuttleworths, the Tanzi brothers and their wives, Barney Laber and his family, John Grant and Betty Renehan? The folks who would appear to pick berries 3 or four times a week during the season? All great patrons, and truly supportive us during those early years? True, many of them have since passed on to that big patch in the sky. True, Anne and I were better looking then, but we have lots of attractive and pleasant souls working at the farm such that I don’t have to be viewed in public anymore. So why isn’t PYO the big nut driving the farm and why do we have a harvest crew today in the fields picking when it was just me or Anne in the late 70’s? Its not that we are that much bigger now.
The PYO as a way to harvest the crop just became too undependable. Today most of the harvest is done by our farmworkers. When the planets align right, the pick your own folks will show up. But most do not can or freeze. So we pick fruit for our farmstand and for some wholesale accounts. It’s about demand for strawberries, and although it is still strong, its diminished considerably by non local fruit being brought in year around to the markets. Way back when, strawberries were…well, only local. It was a true season. It came somewhere around the first of June and lasted to the middle of July; depending on where you lived and where you picked in the upper valley. Then it was done, no more strawberries until next year… you ate jam and frozen strawberries. Today the first thing you are apt trip over when you walk into a grocery store is a big display case of not only strawberries but raspberries, blackberries and blueberries. Year round. In the dead of winter. Great big clear clamshells full of monsterous strawberries half the size of your head. And even I get sucked in and buy them periodically. And honestly? They are not bad at all. They can be a little crunchy, sometimes not that sweet and devoid of the aroma ours have….but they can oftentimes be pretty good. And because they have a level of dependable quality and flavor, people are no longer starved and motivated to get in the fields and pick ours. And why go to the bother of sitting in front of the TV and hulling berries to freeze when you can get a quart or two the second week of January in the store if you want them?
Sure was different way back then…..