PYO at the FARM: Pooh's perspective.

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…..