In today’s Seacoast Sunday newspaper…
It’s pick your own strawberries season
Fresh, pick-your-own berries ready
By Amy Kane
Kneel in the dirt. Bow your head. Peer into the tangle of green. Reach for the ripe red berry and pluck it from the vine.
Strawberries are in season. Summer has begun.
“Like day and night,” is how Miriam LeClair of East Kingston describes the taste of a fresh garden strawberry compared to the ones cellophaned in cardboard at the supermarket.
At the moment, it’s a little cheaper to pick your own strawberries than to buy them at the store. But that’s not the point. The folks in the fields are looking for flavor. They don’t mind working for their dessert. And, like the poet, they say, “What is so rare as a day in June?”
Miriam and her daughters, Danielle, 7, and Michelle, 4, visit Monahan Farm just down the road from home a few times each summer to pick fruit for their table. But if they aren’t careful, strawberry season can pass them by.
“It’s just a short time,” said Miriam. “One year we missed it.”
At the tender age of 4, Michelle has mastered the art of finding a perfectly ripe strawberry hidden among the leaves. She holds a large berry in her small hand, confident in its perfection and her own powers of discernment.
But just to be sure, she nibbles it. Then devours it.
She will not say what it tastes like, or how she can tell it is ripe; she only smiles a secret (berry-stained) smile.
Strawberries have been growing at the farm for 45 years now. Natalie Walker is the granddaughter of the first Monahan.
“My grandfather came from Ireland. He sold his produce in Boston because there weren’t enough people here,” said Natalie. “There were no boys, so my father got me helping him.”
Now her grandsons pitch in. Her son, Jeff Walker, and his wife, Christine, operate the farm.
At the stand, Natalie is weighing a cardboard tray heaped with berries. Bring your own container, or buy a tray for 75 cents or a quart container for 20 cents, she explains. Cost of the berries is $2.05 per pound. (Shaw’s and Hannaford are $2.50 per pound.) The pleasure of picking is free.
But the pleasure of picking strawberries ends at Monahan’s in about a week, so don’t wait.
Raspberries will be ripe the first week in July, blueberries the second week, peaches the first week in August, blackberries the third week, and fall raspberries early in September. Corn, tomatoes, beans, carrots and other vegetables are sold at the stand in the summer too, says Natalie.
“When I was in high school, people made fun of you if you were a farmer. Now it’s more prestigious,” she observes.
Farm land is shrinking in the Seacoast, yet the appeal of farming seems to grow — if not the actual hard work of it, day after day, then at least visits to local farms a few times a year to pick berries, buy fresh vegetables, ride a hay wagon through an orchard, select the perfect pumpkin for carving or get lost in a corn maze.
It’s agricultural tourism, a visit to our past. Maybe we’re nostalgic. Maybe we’re looking for something — something we lost.
“A direct relationship with food,” is how Todd Wagner of Applecrest Farm Orchards in Hampton Falls describes the pick-your-own experience.
“At a store you may get a quart of strawberries cheaper, but what you don’t know is where it’s from, when it was picked or by whom,” he says.
Beth Russell of Portsmouth is carrying a large pot of freshly picked strawberries out of the field at Applecrest. She intends to make jam.
It’s cheaper to pick than to buy locally grown berries at the store, she notes, and she likes to support local growers. But she also likes being able to choose each berry, and not get stuck with the half-ripe ones that sometimes lurk at the bottom of a store carton.
Strawberries are healthy, with plenty of vitamin C. Picking also satisfies your recommended daily allowance of sunshine.
“You get your vitamin D out here,” she said.
Larry and Susan Benedict of Portsmouth are on a jam mission with Beth. They have a small garden and could grow their own, but they wouldn’t get this many berries at once.
Karen Gregory of Exeter, is a few rows away, keeping an eye on her kids, Meadow, 4, and Lotus, 1. Meadow is making friends and Lotus is sitting happily in the dirt eating a berry.
Families are a big part of the PYO business, says Todd. “It’s a pure and simple joy to go out in the fields and find huge, big, beautiful berries.”
On weekdays, pickers are asked to check in at the farm market before heading to the fields.
He says, “We should weigh the kids before they go out, we know that.”
Applecrest has four acres of strawberries, with berries ripening daily through about July 4. Blueberries should be turning blue around that time. Peaches from early August through early September, coinciding with the start of apple season.
According to Todd, this is the best crop of strawberries the Wagner family has ever grown. He attributes it to mulching last winter with salt hay, which has no weeds.
“What do you think, Dad? Why are the strawberries so good this year?” he asks.
“Luck,” says his father, Peter. “Also, no late frost. And management — fertilizing, weeding, cultivating.”
The Fourth Annual Strawberry Festival at Applecrest is happening today, June 21, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. There will be free live music, hayrides, face painting, pick-your-own strawberries and delicacies baked in the farm kitchen.
“It’s everything strawberry under the sun,” Todd promises.
Todd’s wife, Jen, and son, Dieter, 4, are lugging baskets of berries from the field after a picking party with members of Jen’s book club and their kids. Dieter is clutching an absurdly large berry, of the size the family has nicknamed a “dinosaur.”
Todd and Jen worked in the entertainment industry in the San Francisco area and moved here three years ago with their two kids.
“We wanted to experience life close to the land,” she says. “The kids were out picking dessert after dinner last night. And they help with the weeding.”
Is it worth all the work?
“Come out. Stop and smell,” she says. “You will be converted.”
But, hurry: strawberry fields aren’t forever.
Applecrest Farm Orchards
133 Exeter Road, Hampton Falls
Hours: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily
2 South Road, East Kingston
Hours: Monday to Thursday 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Friday to Sunday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Blueberry Bay Farm
38 Depot Road, Stratham
Currently open weekends at 9 a.m.; strawberries pick out early; lettuce, beets, herbs and garlic scallions are also ready for picking; open for blueberries on July 4.
216 Portsmouth Ave., Stratham
Stand is open; call to check on PYO berries.
321 Portsmouth Ave., Stratham
No PYO strawberries, but PYO blueberries and raspberries will be available in early July. Call to check.
For more information on local farms, produce and farmers markets, visit http://www.seacoastgrowers.org.