Strawberry season has begun: Local farms release schedules for pick-your-own operations

The Recorder, June 8, 2018, by Richie Davis

That sweet strawberry time has just about arrived, with green lights at you-pick farms around the region to come get red berries. In some cases, they’re yellow lights saying they’re almost ready.

“Everyone loves it,” says Upinngil Farm’s Clifford Hatch, who’s been offering pick-your-own strawberries in Gill for 25 years, “It’s our flush of summer.”

Pick-your-own is scheduled to begin this weekend at Upinngil and also at Red Fire Farm in Montague. But for anyone who thought they’d head south to Whately or Sunderland, where seasons usually get a head start, they’ll be a few more days of waiting.

And this year will mark the first for a new Greenfield pick-your-own operation, run by Warner Farm on Plain Road.

Warner Farm’s new 1½-acre Greenfield strawberry field, located just across the road from where a popular Hatch’s Patch attracted pickers in the 1980s and ’90s, is operated by Sunderland’s Warner Farm, which is also moving its you-pick operation from Old Amherst Road to the Mike’s Maze location off Route 47, across from Millstone Market. Picking there is expected to start by mid-week, with the new Greenfield field due to open by late next week — both for weekday and weekend picking.

With help of some extra-early varieties, including the combination of a plastic mulch system and planting plugs instead of dormant plants, Ryan Voiland said Red Fire North was able to start retailing strawberries as much as two weeks ago at the new Red Fire North store on Route 63.

The lack of late frosts this year has been good news for berry growers, some of whom, like Hatch at Upinngil, say they’re slightly earlier than last year’s late start in offering ripe berries to pickers.

“It’s been relatively dry and cool, and it looks like a real good crop with nice size, and high quality,” said Hatch. “It should be one of our better years, as long as it doesn’t start raining on us. But the next couple of weeks look good. Mother Nature is always in control.”

There was a late fruit bloom this year, but things have caught up for about three acres of berries to be ready for the start of you-pick beginning at 8 a.m. and probably continuing daily with two more weekends of picking ahead.

“Our later varieties are just finishing up now,” said Hatch, who had berries retailing at the farm stand earlier this week.

Prospective pickers should check Upinngill’s Facebook page, its website (Upinngil.com) or call 413-863-4431 for daily picking conditions.

In Montague, Voiland says his regular strawberry crop may be about a week late because of cooler temperatures, but his early berries began ripening as early as May 20. While in some years Red Fire prepared to open for pick-your-own organic berries by the start of June, this weekend’s opening is “just a tad on the late side.”

He estimates he’s growing between five and six acres of berries between Red Fire’s Montague and Granby farms.

“It’s been a little cool, but this weekend should be pretty nice, and I don’t think strawberries like it when it’s 90 as they’re ripening,” says Voiland, who expects the Meadow Road farm picking to go on for three weekends, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (Red Fire’s CSA members are welcome to pick any day of the week.)

“The flavor’s been very good” this year, says Voiland, who’s experimenting with use of row covers and straw versus different colors of plastic mulching on the regular season berries.

Picking details are on the farm’s website, redfirefarm.com, or the Red Fire North’s Facebook page.

Michael Wisseman of Warner Farm says he hopes his Greenfield plot he rents on Plain Road, about a mile north of the Colrain Road intersection, will be open late next week, a couple of days after his Sunderland field.

“We wanted to move toward Greenfield, because a lot of our customers come from that area and because … a lot of people think of that as a strawberry area, but there’s not a lot around there for pick-your-own,” said Wisseman. “It’s a beautiful spot. I’m excited about being up there.”

With just an acre and a half in Greenfield, “I expect we’ll get picked out.” But plans call for expanding the area in the future, and “we’ll see what the future brings,” he said. As for this season, Wisseman expects that the you-pick fields will be open at least through July 4 and probably a week beyond that.

But growers agree that pickers reach a saturation point after several weeks of strawberries, and you-pick operations have dwindled as business has declined.

“In the ’60s and ’70s when we did it, people would be lined up, and the hardest job was parking all the cars,” recalls Wisseman, whose in-laws started what he says was the area’s first pick-your-own patch in 1963. “At the height, we had 14 to 15 acres, and 95 percent was pick-your-own. Those days are not going to return, but it seems to be coming back because of the interest in local agriculture and there’s kind of more entertainment value it, where it’s something fun to do with the kids.”

But, he adds, “You’re not getting people picking pounds and pounds. You used to have people fill their station wagons with flats, and they’d pick 100 or 200 pounds. Now the volume is much less and people just aren’t doing their own processing at home like they used to make preserves and to freeze strawberries. Moms used to be more frequently at home and everybody had freezer chests.”

Wisseman, who supplies several community strawberry suppers and plans to have a Father’s Day strawberry breakfast at the farm as an added attraction, says, “We’re lucky we live in the area we live in, where there’s a lot of interest doing outdoor stuff.”

Hatch, who finds that “By end June, people run out of steam” for berry picking, also believes people are picking less as a reflection of “good economic times.”

“It just doesn’t seem that expensive to them to buy picked berries,” he said. “I think if gas prices suddenly got really outrageous, sales would jump.”

Whately’s Pasciecnik Farms, which also has a pick-your-own business, has just begun picking its own berries and is also seeing a season that’s about a week late this year, so it doesn’t plan to open its you-pick until Father’s Day weekend. Check its 5J Creamee and Pasiecnik Farm Stand Facebook Page for details.

Nourse Farms in Whately, which was a major pick-your-own destination until about three years ago, is also seeing a season that’s a week or so later than usual.

The River Road farm, which has a retail tent that should be open sometime in the next week or so, according to owner Tim Nourse, has about 10 acres of strawberries, mostly for retail customers.

“This means we just pick berries later,” he adds, with strawberries likely to be available through at least July 16. “With a later season, you get more concentration of ripening with late varieties. It’s kind of what it is, so you deal with it accordingly.”

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