ACROSS America, strawberry farmers' fields are being invaded. Not by weeds or insects - but by people. Called Pick-Your-Own or U-Pick, these farms invite people to tote baskets and bowls to their fields for some down-to-earth berry shopping. Here at Hanson's farm in Framingham, Mass., Al and Corinne Branson are in the midst of a help-yourself strawberry harvest. Manned with several containers, they - like many others - will leave with many more strawberries than they intended.
``I got the legal limit on this one,'' jokes Mr. Branson, balancing an overflowing bowl of the berries.
Hanson's farm is one of about 50 in Massachusetts that offer pick-your-own strawberries. At 79 cents a pound (customers' containers are weighed before and after filling), Hanson berries cost about $1.25 a quart, compared to a supermarket price of about $2.99 a quart.
``It's a good deal,'' says Tom Hanson, who runs this 55-acre farm started back in 1908 by his great-grandfather. ``It's low-cost entertainment, and you get something out of it.''
``It's fresh; it's not like you buy them at the store,'' says Corinne Branson. She plans to make strawberry desserts, strawberry-rhubarb jelly, and freeze the rest.
``Tom Hanson says he should weigh kids before they come in and after they come out,'' says Marian Collins, who's berry-picking with her two daughters, Anna and Elisabeth, and friend Sarah.
`Tasting' is not encouraged
``They're good and juicy,'' asserts 8-year-old Elisabeth, who plans to help her mother make strawberry jam for her teacher's end-of-year gift.
``Tasting'' is not encouraged, but ``we just assume some people will eat some,'' says Mrs. Hanson. ``Nobody ever eats so much that it makes a difference in the profit,'' she adds.
The appeal is not only the bargain prices and the fact that harvesters can be choosy, but also the atmosphere: ``The whole experience of being out in the field is what they enjoy,'' says Jennifer Schuh of Schuh farms, a 10-acre U-Pick in Mt. Vernon, Wash.
Tom Hanson agrees: ``You can take your kids out here for less that it costs to go to the movies.'' Most strawberry pickers here are families and seniors, he says.
During berry-picking season, ``the farm really livens up,'' says Martha Hanson. This weekend - the peak of their season - they will have a strawberry festival, complete with strawberry shortcake and hay rides.
Strawberries aren't the only things you may find in a strawberry patch.
``This is how I met my wife,'' says Mr. Hanson, standing in what may have been the very spot. His wife, Martha, explains: Eight years ago, ``I just had a day off and came up to pick strawberries and went out in the field. [Tom] came over and said, `You don't know how to pick strawberries,''' she remembers.
He helped her pick them ``the right way'': Kneel beside a row of berries, with your basket in front of you. Your knees should be parallel to the row. Put one finger on either side of a berry and pull. Work your way down the row. Most people tend to jump around a lot; they're ``not methodic enough,'' says Mr. Hanson. Brush the leaves aside and pick up the clusters.
Hiring workers to harvest is expensive, so customers' picking their own is good all round. Weather is the major downside for U-Pick farmers: A rainy weekend may mean overripe berries that go unpicked and start to rot. Occasionally, too, a customer will have ``unreasonably'' high expectations: If they ``can't pick a quart in a couple minutes,'' says Mrs. Hanson, ``they think there aren't enough berries to pick. ... You can't expect them to jump in your basket - you have to get on your hands and knees.''
Out of the hundreds of varieties of cross-bred strawberries, the Hansons cultivate five: Sparkle (an older variety that produces fewer, but much sweeter fruit), Catskills, Sunrise, Early Glow, and Red Chief. Although the season is only three to four weeks long, he identifies his crop as early, mid-season, or late.
Strawberries are ``very labor-intensive; they're a perennial crop and very hard to control,'' says Mr. Hanson. Small fruit in general is difficult to grow, as it involves special treatment and equipment, he adds.
Supermarket strawberries miss the mark, in Hanson's opinion. California strawberries are sweeter than they used to be, he concedes, but are ``very pulpy, not as sweet, because they are geared for shipping.''
The self-serve strawberry business generates less than 1 percent of strawberry sales, says Larry Galper, ranch manager of Telles Ranch Inc. in Watsonville, Calif., one of the largest producers of strawberries in California.
With a season stretching from April to November, California produces about 75 percent of all strawberries sold in the United States; Florida is second. Telles Ranch's 200 acres will produce nearly 24 million pints of berries this year. About two-thirds of California's crop is sold fresh, with the rest frozen or processed, according to the California Strawberry Advisory Board.
Still, says Mr. Galper, the idea of picking your own strawberries is ``kind of in vogue right now. The popular bandwagon now is anti-technological.''
It's hard to say for sure whether pick-your-own farms are on the rise. There are more of them in Massachusetts, now - even pick-your-own tomatoes and cucumbers. But Jennifer Schuh in Washington reports ``a moderate decrease in public interest. A lot more people would rather come to a stand,'' she says, where produce is already picked, as well as fresh.
She also notes that their U-Pick used to get ``tons and tons of mothers. Now you don't see that because more mothers are having to work.'' But, she adds, ``as long as there are farms, there'll be U-Picks.''
Tips for pickers
Look for berries that are red, shiny, unbruised, firm, and fragrant.
Sort the berries when you get them home, removing any softened ones. Don't hull or wash them until you're ready to use them, and use them quickly: Berries will only keep about two days in the refrigerator. Store them loosely in shallow containers so that air can circulate.
If you want to freeze the berries, experts say a sugar pack makes a better-quality frozen product than an unsweetened pack: Sprinkle each quart (about 3 cups hulled berries) of strawberries with 3/4 cup sugar and mix thoroughly until a juice forms. Put into container with 1/2 inch head space. Seal and freeze.
You can also freeze them without sugar: Hull and rinse the berries, and place them on cookie sheets so that they don't touch each other. Put the cookie sheets in the freezer. When berries are fully frozen, put them in plastic bags and store in the freezer.
Contact your state department of agriculture (usually located in the state capital) for U-Pick farms near you.