Consumers flock to the fields in rite of summer

CUSTOMERS DO THE PICKING, AND FARMERS DO THE GRINNING

August 08, 1993|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,Staff Writer

It's one warm-weather invasion many farmers welcome: hordes of folks, daubed with insect repellent and sunscreen and clutching buckets, invade the fields to pick their own fruits and vegetables.

As more city residents move into the county, the popularity of do-it-yourself harvesting has stayed high, says Harford farmer John Perdue. Mr. Perdue and his wife, Laura, opened their family farm, Due-Berry Acres in White Hall, to the pick-your-own crowd about nine years ago.

"We've seen an increase every year," he said. "It's a summertime rite, people want to pick their own fruits or vegetables but they own just a small parcel of ground and can't grow their own," said Mr. Perdue, a nutrient management consultant at the University of Maryland's cooperative extension office in Forest Hill.

Sami Ober-Smith, who lives in Monkton, said she picked about 35 pounds of strawberries over two days at the Perdues' farm.

"My family thinks it's a lot of fun, although I do most of the work," Mrs. Ober-Smith said. She said she picks her own berries because it's very economical and because they taste better than store-bought.

"I couldn't afford to buy 35 pounds at the prices stores sell them, even if I could find anyone to sell me that many at one time," she said.

She makes freezer jam. "My sons won't eat store bought anymore," she said. And she freezes strawber ries, some sliced and some whole, to use in baking at a later date.

Farmers, like the Perdues, say they wish they could get consumers as excited about other pick-your-own crops as they are about strawberries or apples. Those are the two traditional pick-your-own favorites.

On the Perdues' best day this spring, they sold 1,300 pounds of pick-your-own strawberries. At their roadside stand they also sold 120 quart-size containers, or about 180 pounds, of berries they had picked themselves, Mr. Perdue said.

Raspberries -- the Perdues have a second crop coming in now -- aren't nearly as popular, he said. The Perdues don't grow apples.

Mr. Perdue said he isn't sure how many pick-your-own raspberries he has sold so far this summer. "Our best day was when we picked them ourselves and that was about 80 pints," he said. That's equal to about 90 pounds.

Raspberries are less popular for several reasons, he said. But the biggest drawback is that raspberries are much more expensive than strawberries.

The Perdues sold pick-your-own raspberries for $1.50 a pound, far less than the $2.50 per half pint (that's about $5 per pound) that they retailed for in most grocery stores, he said. But they're still much more expensive than pick-your-own strawberries that sold for 70 cents a pound.

And strawberries are easier to gather.

Earl Weber, who is the third generation of his family to farm Mount Pleasant Orchard Inc. in Havre de Grace, said visitors complain that they have to work too hard to pick blackberries, which he has now.

During the spring when strawberries are in season, Mr. Weber said, he might have 100 customers during a weekend. Compare that with the handful or so who might show up to gather blackberries, he said. And, he said, pick-your-own blackberries are a bargain at 50 cents a pound.

The high point of the pick-your-own crops was in the 1970s, when it was the "in thing" to do, says George Roche, marketing specialist with the Maryland Department of Agriculture in Annapolis.

"Back then, we thought the sky was the limit," Mr. Roche said. "I think the most important change is that . . . both spouses in the family are working full time now so families have less time," he said.

But pick-your-own farms can still offer something not available in large grocery stores: vine or tree-ripened fruit. "Your average large grocery store chain can't handle that because they need lTC fruit that can sit around a while, that has a longer shelf life," he said.

But farmers can't sit back and just wait for the consumers to show.

Mr. Roche said farmers have to market their wares, building name recognition and finding ways to keep people coming back. "Adding new crops has become an absolute must. The farmer who is trying to make money through pick-your-own has to find ways to extend the season as long as possible," he said.

That's why Donald Hoopes, who runs Hoopes Quaker Hill Farm in Forest Hill, added other pick-your-own crops, like blueberries and cherries, to his family's nearly 30-year-old strawberry operation.

"You don't want your customers to forget about you," he said. Once the berries are over, usually around mid-July, the farm sells peaches, though not pick-your-own, and later apples, which Mr. Hoopes says he buys from area farmers.

"We thought about getting into apples but the start-up costs are tremendous," he said. The farm ends its season around Thanksgiving, with pick-your-own pumpkins and dig-your-own mums, which also are very popular with families, he said.

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