Sweethearts on the Vine

Fresh, luscious, and sweet—strawberries make for a healthy summer treat

Story and photos by Elaina Robinson

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When selecting berries, check for ripeness.  Look a berry over before picking it. If the tip is still whitish, it’s not as sweet and ripe as it can be.

Grab a bucket, throw on a pair of old sneakers, and hit the fields with family and friendsbut don’t be afraid to get a little messy. Why? Because it’s strawberry picking time, and these nutrient-packed fruits are ready to be plucked straight off the vine.

Flourishing from mid to late June and providing more vitamin C than oranges, strawberries are a tasty and healthy treat. The heart-shaped fruit is also relatively easy to grow, as they can tolerate a wide range of soil types. And though strawberries thrive in tropical highlands, they can be just as hearty in New York State, toughing it out through the harsh Upstate New York weather, which often includes ruthless blizzards, rapidly fluctuating temperatures, and brisk winds.

“That makes for one tough fruit,” says Nick Lavigne of Plattsburgh, who goes strawberry picking with his family every year at Rulf’s Orchard. Lavigne says it’s a family experience and a great chance to witness farming and family values first-hand in northern New York.

“By taking the fruit right off the vine, you know it will be fresh and have its full amount of vitamins and nutrients, too.”

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Picking your own strawberries allows you to do the quality control, making sure the strawberries are not over or under ripe.
Family traditions are a common theme when it comes to strawberry farming in the North Country. Pray’s Family Farms in Keeseville, N.Y. has been a family-run business for 69 years and has been growing strawberries since the very beginning.

“We’ve offered u-pick strawberry services since around that time too,” Blair Pray says. Generally, Pray’s farm grows around four to five varieties of strawberries, with the berry-picking starting around Father’s Day, depending on the weather and how the spring goes. “We do what we can to prevent frost damage,” Pray says. With this year’s colder temperatures and April snow showers, Pray is expecting the season to start a little later than normal.

Like Pray’s, Rulf’s Orchard offers ‘u-pick’ strawberries starting around mid-June. Patti Sheehan of Rulf’s Orchard says u-pick is an all-around great bargain. “It’s a better deal in your wallet, and you get the option of picking how much you want,” Sheehan says.  Strawberries are sold by weight, so unlike purchasing a certain amount in a store, the picker can choose just how much they want. “By taking the fruit right off the vine, you know it will be fresh and have its full amount of vitamins and nutrients, too,” Sheehan says, adding that the experience is a fun outing event for families. “Grandparents wait for their kids to go on summer vacation to go pick.” she says. From grandparents with their grandchildren, to parents, kids, and teens, Pray says he sees “all walks of life” in the fields.

“I like to sneak bites of the strawberries every now and then too.”

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Strawberries grow best in a sunny location with deep, well-drained sandy loam soil with a pH of approximately 6.2.

Cindy Baxter of Parishville, N.Y. enjoys picking strawberries with her daughter from Martin’s Roadside Market in Potsdam. Baxter, who has been picking strawberries for the past 15 years, says it’s a great mother-daughter bonding experience.  “I like to sneak bites of the strawberries every now and then,” Baxter says.  And because strawberries offer a loaded number of nutrients, there’s no harm in doing just that.

According to Emily Selleck, a horticulture community educator, strawberries have fewer calories than most fruits and are packed with vitamin C, fiber, and potassium. However, Selleck warns that strawberries are extremely perishable and can rarely be kept more than seven days after harvest, so it is wise to store them in a refrigerator and handle with care to prevent bruising.

Val Farr, owner and operator of Best by Farr, a strawberry u-pick business in Evans Mills, N.Y., says,  “strawberries last longest if you put them in a glass jar with a lid in the refrigerator and don’t wash them.” Best by Farr offers five varieties of strawberries, excluding Jewel, the most widely-grown strawberry in the Northeast.  Farr says it’s because the Jewel variety grows better in the sand, not the thick clay soil at Best by Farr. Farr suggests the best places to pick strawberries are along irrigation pipes, in the thistle and weed, and the first plant in every row, as these are the plants most overlooked.

“It reminds me of my mother when we used to pick together.”

Sherry Beebe of Alex Bay, N.Y. argues the best place to pick strawberries remains simply in the wild, behind her father’s house where she has picked her entire life. “It reminds me of my mother when we used to pick together.”

Perhaps Beebe is right. Picking in the wild means keeping ones wallet out of sight; however, u-pick services have continued trends of low consumer costs. Selleck says, “The grower doesn’t have to pay for either staff to pick or staff to store the picked fruit, so the growers often pass those savings onto the picker-buyer.”

Kevin Iungerman, a northern New York fruit specialist with a focus on commercial orchards and wineries, says, “Due to its short shelf life, strawberries are often transported by air, adding additional expenses such as maintaining refrigeration at the point of origin, in transit, and at the final pre-consumer purchase end.” This, transportation costs and equipment and labor expenses make for a pricey fruit in the grocery store. 

As Sheehan points out, it’s just one more reason to go out and pick your own. To Plattsburgh resident Gretchen Raville, “It’s something different to do rather than just going to the mall.”

So whether the reason is low cost, fresh taste, family time, or just something different to do, as Lavigne says, “pick while the picking is at its best.”


What is your favorite part of picking fresh strawberries?

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