Self-pick farms are fields of dreams for strawberry fans

June 01, 1994|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff Writer

It's a perfect day in June. The sky is blue, the bees are buzzing, the birds are chirping, and you are kneeling in the rich, moist soil, filling box after box with plump, perfect, strawberries.

If this sounds like work to you, you are probably a farmer. If it sounds like a fun, practical, economical way to stock your fridge or freezer, catch some rays, and let the kids see where food really comes from, you are a likely customer for one of the region's dozens of pick-your-own produce farms.

"Some people come and stay all day," says Ethel Huber, who, with her husband Steve, owns Huber's Produce Farm in Bradshaw, just north of White Marsh in Baltimore County. "They make it an outing."

And, although Mrs. Huber says there have been times when they've had hundreds of cars on the parking lot and people all over the place picking, pick-your-own produce business has fallen off since its heyday in the late 1970s and early '80s. Back then, when the family-run farm had some 500 acres of pick-your-own and market-stand produce, she says, "It was a survival-type thing . . . everybody was really serious." Today, the farm she and her husband took over from his parents about 5 years ago has about 150 acres, two-thirds of it pick-your-own.

But people still appreciate pick-your-own produce because they can pick the exact size or color or or quality that appeals to them. "And they seem to like the idea that it's a little more economical," Mrs. Huber says.

Strawberries that cost $1.49 a pound in the grocery store cost a dollar or less a pound fresh from the vine.

Like about five dozen other produce farmers, the Hubers list their market stand and pick-your-own produce in the "1994 Maryland Direct Farm Market & Pick Your Own Directory," complied by the Maryland Direct Farm Market Association, a trade group that provides marketing and educational opportunities for direct farm marketers.

"A lot of our people are still small family-type operations that sell what they grow," says Stan Dabkowski, president of the association, who runs a farm market on Hanover Pike in northwestern Baltimore County. "The strawberry season is certainly a large part of these farmers' yearly income."

At one time the 60-member organization had as many as 120 farmer-members. Changes in the produce industry and changes in the weather have taken their toll on the grow-and-sell farmers, Mr. Dabkowski says. "Fifteen years ago supermarkets didn't offer the produce" they do today. Now, he says, "the competition is fierce no matter what you're in."

Last winter's harsh weather took a toll as well. "This year there's going to be very few peaches west of the Chesapeake Bay. . . . The early stone fruit -- cherries, peaches and plums -- they just aren't going to be there," Mr. Dabkowski says. "It could put some of our people out of business."

Farmers have turned to farm activities to attract visitors, Mr. Dabkowski says: School tours, hayrides, farm zoos and bee-keeping are all popular, and can be handled in October, when people aren't consumed by vacation plans. "It's kind of entertainment farming," he says.

The farm market directory is available at public libraries, state tourism offices and offices of the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service. It lists more than 60 places in 11 Maryland counties and York County, Penn.

If you plan to head out to pick your own berries or peas, however, it's a good idea to call ahead. Picking selections vary according to the weather and the volume of pickers. Most pick-your-own farms have recorded messages telling what's available and giving directions.

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