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Easy Pickings

Local pick-your-own farms offer memories as well as fresh produce

Lee Gardner
The author's son (opposite page) at Larriland Farm, picking spinach which he will later refuse to eat.

Sizzlin Summer 2009

Cruel Summer City Paper's Sizzlin' Summer 2009

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By Lee Gardner | Posted 5/20/2009

The June rain showed no signs of letting up, but Larriland Farm is almost an hour's drive out I-70 from Baltimore, and there are only so many weekends in strawberry season. So we parked the car along the muddy farm road, cinched the hoods on our raincoats, and grabbed waxed cardboard flats from the teenage farm workers sheltering in a covered cart at the edge of the field.

The 6-year-old and the almost-2-year-old dashed ahead, yelling excitedly and snatching at the low plants laid out in long lines across the gentle slope. Rain soaked our socks and trickled inside our waistbands as we stooped low over the wet rows, administering gentle tugs--pull and the ripe fruit surrenders. The 6-year-old shouted out every find of a cache of deep red berries, which meant near constant excited shouting since they lined every muddy furrow. The best, the ripest, were often found under the lower layers of leaves, so that after a few minutes of lifting sopping stems the rain ran down the inside of our coat sleeves. The toddler stumbled up from slightly downslope, his chin and cheeks smeared with red pulp under his raincoat hood. It was hard to resist the strawberries, mere seconds from the vine, with their sweet, grassy taste. We drove back to town with a trunk full of gorge-worthy fruit and a vivid memory worth savoring every bit as much--and far more long-lasting.

And that is a big part of the appeal of a pick-your-own farm like Larriland. After all, if you stop by your local grocery store, you can have almost anything you can afford, thanks to modern international agribusiness. But it's not just the having, it's the getting, and maybe the appreciating.

Though he's not prone to rhapsodizing, at least not to reporters, Larriland Vice President Fenby Moore is well aware what his family's 286-acre Woodbine farm offers city dwellers. "We're selling atmosphere as much as produce," he says by telephone as the farm readies for another strawberry season. "We're selling a family outing. [People] can get out of the urban area and out into the country and spend a few hours picking produce and enjoying being out in the fresh air."

"Pick your own has grown and grown and grown and grown," says Cheryl Vural, director of retail operations for Carroll County's Baugher's Farm, as she stands on a low hill overlooking much of its rolling 600 acres, including a field of almost ready to bloom strawberry plants. "A lot of folks from the city come out, all wide-eyed, not knowing where food comes from."

She means that literally: The modern urban consumer, used to buying apples in May and strawberries in December--albeit pallid specimens frequently shipped in from halfway around the world--often doesn't quite understand or appreciate the ephemeral beauty of the strawberries that ripen perfectly in Maryland soil in late May and early June and then disappear for another year. "You can only get them three or four weeks locally, and that's it," Vural notes.

But city folks are increasingly catching on. As the number of amateur foodies has grown, and as Michael Pollan sells more and more copies of The Omnivore's Dilemma, a new generation is recognizing the importance and value of good food and knowing where it comes from. And Larriland and Baugher's, as well as many other smaller farms throughout Maryland, make a point of offering a chance to find out.

Pick your own farms are nothing new. Moore says Larriland switched from turf farming to pick-your-own fruits and vegetables in 1973. Baugher's Farm started opening up its fields to visitors in 1972. In both cases, it was a matter of economics. Moore and two of his siblings wanted to go into the family's farming business, and he says his father determined that there was no way the price each acre of turf brought in could support three families. Vural says that for four generations the Baugher family has looked for ways to diversify its business and, as she puts it, "push the fruit," including a restaurant closer to nearby Westminster, a bakery peddling pies filled with Baugher's cherries and peaches, a farm market, and, eventually, a few fields opened up for public picking. Both pick-your-own operations are now big businesses that host thousands of farmworkers-for-a-day during peak weekends across a growing season that begins with the first strawberries in May and June and extends through the last apples and pumpkins of October, rolling through the ripening of crops such as cherries, peas, spinach, beets, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, and peaches. (Both Larriland and Baugher's maintain web sites--pickyourown.com and baughers.com, respectively--though the best way to keep up with what's available to pick any given day is to call their hotlines. Larriland's is [410] 442-2605, while Baugher's is [410] 857-0111. A more comprehensive if intermittently informative list of Maryland retail farms can be found pickyourown.org/MD.htm.)

But, again, it's not just fruits and vegetables on sale. The atmosphere of the family farm is still there in the rutted unpaved roads, old barns, and random goats, even if the scales are digital and Visa and Mastercard work just fine. And just as crops on any farm are rotated based on the health of the soil, they are also introduced and phased out for pick-your-own based on retail-customer demand. While Larriland still offers a number of vegetable crops in addition to its many fruits, the pick-your-own vegetable staples of a generation ago are all but gone.

"Vegetables require more prep time, and the average mom today wants to come home from work and throw dinner together in a half an hour," Moore says. "Back in the day, I used to grow six, seven acres of green beans--now I grow a tenth of an acre. I used to grow four acres of lima beans. I don't grow any lima beans anymore."

But part of the appeal for the new generation of pick-your-own fans--especially those with kids--includes getting back to the simpler feeling of decades past, even if you have to pay for the privilege. "Thirty years ago, [picking] wasn't so unusual," Vural says. "A lot of people had a garden. Your grandmother might have had a fruit tree."

"My grandmother canned in the '60s, my mother froze [food] in the '70s, and people in the '80s probably did nothing," she continues. "And that's where these people are in the '90s and '00s--'I know they did this, but I don't know how.' Picking is a little bit stranger and stranger as the generations go by, so we have increased our pick your own as people have gotten farther away from the farm."

Which is not to say that the folks flocking to the country are rubes, especially when it comes to what they put in their mouths. In an era when "organic" is a hot marketing term second only to "new," customers who've never stood on plowed earth before often have questions about pesticides and chemicals. Moore and Vural wheel out practiced responses, both noting that their respective farms use "integrated pest management," a scientific, computer-supported combination of passive and active pest deterrents that does include chemicals, but "as little as possible, as infrequently as possible," Vural says. "We use fewer chemicals than a lot of people who are allowed to call themselves 'organic.'" Then she provides perhaps the most reassuring answer possible: "We eat this, too, you know."

So yes, pick-your-own, at least as practiced by farms such as Larriland and Baugher's, is a big business, marketed and managed to appeal to modern consumers, but these are still family-run operations, and there is still a personal connection at root here, a sharing of the bounty of the land that is no less profound for being shared with strangers. Likewise, spending an hour or two wandering rows of nearly endless varieties of apple trees or a slope covered in lines of tidy blueberry bushes with the sun on your face, looking for ripe fruit with your kids, or even a date, is the kind of atavistic, wholesome good time that Wii hasn't gotten close to touching yet. And best of all, there's something incredible to eat at the end of your hard work, something that you will be hard-pressed to find in any grocery store, even in June.

Standing beside row after row of plants that in mere weeks will dangle luscious strawberries, Vural says, "Once you get a taste of the way it's supposed to taste, you won't tolerate California strawberries or Argentinian strawberries anymore. They're for decoration. They're not for eating at that point."

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