With her granddaughter on her lap, Marilyn Russo presses the pedal on the golf cart and heads off to the fields on a sunny afternoon. Passing the plastic-wrapped hothouses with tomato plants reaching the ceiling, and the stands of apple and peach trees starting to bud, and the rows of pea plants beginning to blossom, she pulls up to the six acres of strawberry fields and stops to investigate the clumps of fruit hanging beneath the dark green leaves.
"There's plenty of red out there, and some green that will ripen up later," she says, assessing the pick-your-own strawberry season at her family's 150-acre farm in northern Burlington County.
"Since it's been cooler at night, the berries are ripening up nice and slowly," she says. "It's looking like a very good crop this year."
Throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania, farmers who are eager to provide the public with a taste of what they do are gearing up for their busiest "u-pick-'em" season, when customers enter the fields and pick whatever fruit or vegetable is in season, starting with lettuce and asparagus in May, strawberries and peas in June, blackberries and raspberries in July, followed by blueberries, peaches, tomatoes, peppers, squash, and corn in late summer, and finally apples and pumpkins in the fall.
But for many, picking strawberries marks the start of harvest season.
"People are anxious to buy something fresh, something that tells people it's summertime, and that's strawberries," says Kathy Demchak, senior extension associate in berry production at Pennsylvania State University.
Statewide, Pennsylvania last year had 1,300 acres of strawberry fields, which yielded a crop worth $11.5 million.
Pick-your-own plays a big role in the state's strawberry production, Demchak said. After a dropoff in interest five or six years ago, Demchak said, berry farmers have reported a renewed interest.
"People are becoming more aware of local produce, and as they become more aware, they start looking for local sources, and if they can go pick it, so much the better," Demchak says.
There are approximately 300 pick-your-own farms in New Jersey, 50 of which offer strawberries, New Jersey Department of Agriculture spokesman Jeff Beach said. As part of a growing "agritourism" business in the state, farmers are finding that adding a pick-your-own element to their operations helps not only economically, but also in binding them to the community.
"A lot of these people have never stepped foot on a farm, and they come out to pick and suddenly they create a connection," Beach said. "It helps in that people then want locally grown produce, and the desire to preserve farmland."
The Russos had already been picking strawberries to sell at their farm stand on Extonville Road and at the Trenton Farmers Market, grown in beds lined in black plastic tarp to speed up the growing cycle. But the pick-your-own strawberry season, which normally runs from Memorial Day to Father's Day, had to wait out this spring's unseasonably cool weather.
Hellerick's Family Farm in Doylestown and Springdale Farms in Cherry Hill both opened their popular u-pick-'em strawberry fields over Memorial Day weekend. As the last functioning farm in what was once a thriving agricultural community in South Jersey, Springdale Farms has had public strawberry-picking for the last 30 years.
"During the week we get moms and kids, on the weekends we get whole families," said co-owner John Ebert, who expects the picking season to last three or four weeks.
"It's nice. They're getting back to nature, seeing the stuff actually growing in the fields, and picking the stuff they're buying. It's not preselected for them."
The appeals of pick-your- own fruit are numerous. For one thing, fresh-picked strawberries are far tastier than anything you'll find in the supermarket, most of which is shipped from California. Second, there are big savings in doing the work yourself.
Fresh strawberries at local farmers markets and roadside stands this year are going for $5 to $6 a quart, with a quart equaling about 11/2 pounds of berries, while pick-your-own prices range from $1.25 to $2 a pound. Last year, New Jersey farms produced 1.4 million pounds of strawberries, valued at $3 million, according to the state Department of Agriculture.
For many families, u-pick-'em farms offer a fun weekend outing. However, there are still those diehards who pick many pounds of vegetables or fruit that they then can, freeze, or turn into preserves. I fall somewhere in between, having taken my daughters strawberry-picking at Russo's Farm when they were just toddlers, and continuing to take them as teens to the organic farm on the banks of the Delaware River in Cinnaminson each summer to pick blackberries and tomatoes. With such enthusiastic pickers, we always end up with more produce than we can consume. So out comes the jam-making equipment.
Pickling vegetables and putting up preserves may seem like something best left to your grandmother's generation, but in truth, making jam couldn't be easier - or more satisfying. The basic formula calls for approximately equal parts fruit to sugar (four cups of berries and 3 to 4 cups of sugar), plus 1 to 2 cups of liquid (a mix of water and lemon juice) depending on the juiciness and sweetness of the fruit and the amount of preserves you are making. Some recipes call for adding liquid pectin, a natural by-product of fruit that helps jell the jam. All the ingredients are placed in a heavy saucepan, and brought to a rapid boil. The mixture continues simmering at a low boil for about 15 to 20 minutes until it reaches a jamlike consistency. The hot jam is then poured into sterilized jars.
If you are not into preserving, there are many other ways to enjoy those fresh-picked strawberries. The Butter Cake With Strawberry and Rhubarb Compote from Trish Deseine's Nobody Does It Better (Kyle Books, 2007) is a rich and satisfying dessert, or, in the case of my family, breakfast. We were too full after a recent Saturday dinner out, but the next morning, we polished off the French-inspired cake in no time. Using egg whites and strawberry yogurt, Art Smith offers a lighter dessert alternative with his Strawberry Souffle in Back to the Family. The strawberry sauce used to make the souffle is a great stand-alone treat, poured on top of fresh berries or ice cream.
The Strawberry Basil Lemonade in Kim Haasarud's 101 Sangrias and Pitcher Drinks (Wiley 2008) contrasts the sweetness of lemonade and strawberries with the tang of basil for an interesting cocktail, while Mark Bittman's Balsamic Strawberries With Arugula play off a classic Italian dessert, strawberries soaked in balsamic vinegar, as the base ingredient of a savory salad rich in flavor.
And if you're not interested in cooking at all, you can catch one of the many strawberry festivals in the area. Russo's farm supplies hundreds of pounds of berries to the First Presbyterian Church in Bordentown for its strawberry festival that takes place from 6 to 8:30 p.m. tomorrow. There, you can sample strawberry shortcake, strawberries with ice cream, and, of course, homemade strawberry jam.
Call the farm ahead of time to make sure there are still strawberries to be picked.
Dress in old clothes and sneakers that you don't mind getting stained or dirty. If you plan to spend a long time in the field, wear sunscreen or a wide-brimmed hat.
Berries shouldn't be piled too high, so bring a shallow container, such as a flat box, plastic tub or metal tray. (Most u-pick-'em farms have boxes you can buy.)
Follow the directions of the farmhands. At Russo's Farm, for instance, they assign you to a row where they know the berries are plentiful and you won't step on the plants.
Select berries that are plump, firm and fully red; strawberries do not ripen after being harvested.
Pinch the berries off by the stem, just above the berry's cap, and lay them gently in your container.
Keep berries cool while driving home, and refrigerate them if you want them to last a few days.
Here are some local farms that welcome pickers.
Hellerick's Family Farm
5500 Easton Rd.
1000 Marshallton-Thorndale Rd.
None Such Farm
4493 York Rd.
137 W. Knowlton Rd.
Russo's Orchard Lane Farm
310 Extonville Rd.
1638 S. Springdale Rd.
Johnson's Corner Farm
133 Church Rd.
Duffield's Farm Market
Greentree and Chapel Heights Roads
A.L. Gaventa & Son
192 Repaupo Station Rd.
419 Elk Rd.
Makes 10 to 12 servings
2 quarts pink lemonade
2 pints strawberries, hulled, cut into 1/4-inch slices, plus whole berries for garnish
12 whole basil leaves, plus more for garnish
3 cups citrus vodka (optional)
1. At least two hours before serving, mix the lemonade, sliced strawberries, and 12 basil leaves in a large pitcher; stir well. If desired, add the vodka. Cover and refrigerate for two hours or more, as desired, to meld flavors.
2. Serve over ice, garnishing each glass with an additional strawberry and fresh basil leaf.
82 calories, 0.3 gram protein, 22 grams carbohydrates, 20 grams sugar, 0.1 grams fat, no cholesterol, 54 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
3 cups strawberries, hulled and halved or quartered
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, or more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
4 cups arugula leaves
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1. Toss the strawberries with the vinegar and pepper in a large salad bowl and let sit for 10 minutes.
2. Add the arugula, sprinkle with salt and toss again.
3. Drizzle with olive oil and toss gently one last time.
4. Taste, adjust seasoning as desired and serve.
50 calories, 1 gram protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 3 grams fat, no cholesterol, 5 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 8 servings
For the cake:
1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 pound (2 sticks) premium salted butter, softened
11/2 teaspoons baking powder
A few drops vanilla extract
4 medium eggs, at room temperature
For the compote:
18 ounces rhubarb, cut into chunks (about 4 1/2 cups)
7 ounces strawberries (about 2 cups), hulled and sliced
2 to 3 tablespoons sugar
1. For the cake: Grease and flour a 9-inch round cake pan or use a silicone pan. Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. In a large mixer bowl, combine the flour, sugar, butter, baking powder, vanilla and eggs. Beat on high speed for 2 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl.
3. Tip the batter into the pan; bake until golden and just pulling away from the sides of the pan, 25 to 30 minutes.
4. For the compote: To a saucepan, add the rhubarb and a splash of water. Add the strawberries. Cover. Heat very gently, letting the fruit steam in its own juices until soft, 10 to 15 minutes, while the berries release their juicy dye. Add the sugar. Serve chunky or pureed, over the cake, ice cream or other sweet, as desired.
Per serving: 459 calories, 7 grams protein, 52 grams carbohydrates, 29 grams sugar, 25 grams fat, 166 milligrams cholesterol, 276 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.EndText
Makes 4 servings
Butter and sugar for the ramekins (baking dishes)
4 large egg whites
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup Strawberry Sauce (see recipe below)
8 ounces strawberry yogurt
Chocolate sauce (your choice)
1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees.
2. Coat the inside of 4 ramekins with butter and sugar.
3. Using an electric mixer, whip the egg whites on high speed while gradually adding the 1/2 cup sugar. Beat until stiff peaks form.
4. Gently fold in the strawberry sauce and yogurt, then fill the ramekins with the mixture.
5. Place the ramekins in a larger baking dish. Pour water into the dish to come 1 inch up the sides of the ramekins.
6. Bake until the tops of the souffles are lightly browned and spring back when touched, 8 to 10 minutes.
7. Top the souffles with chocolate sauce. Serve at once.
For the Strawberry Sauce:
To a saucepan over medium-high heat, combine 1 pint (2 cups) fresh hulled-and-quartered strawberries, 3 tablespoons sugar, and 2 tablespoons water. Bring to a boil for 1 minute. Reduce heat. Simmer slowly, stirring constantly until sauce reaches syrup consistency. Remove from heat, let cool, and puree until smooth.
Per serving: 195 calories, 5 grams protein, 45 grams carbohydrates, 40 grams sugar, trace fat, 1 milligram cholesterol, 90 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.