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Picking Strawberries – Fields of Fun and Yum

strawberryfieldsonomaThere is nothing quite as inviting to the palate as fresh strawberries – juicy, delicious, and good for you too! Whether eaten fresh or used in ice cream or milk shakes, the bright red berries are a favorite of nearly every berry connoisseur. So, imagine your family’s reaction when they spy a whole field of strawberries! Let the picking frenzy begin!

As Central Florida residents, we are fortunate to be just a short drive away from Plant City, the nationally recognized “Winter Strawberry Capital of the World,” a title well deserved. For over 100 years, Henry B. Plant’s railroad has made it possible for farmers to ship their crops to distant markets, so that the area around Plant City and Dover in Hillsborough County now produces about 15 percent of the nation’s strawberries, with nearly all of the berries grown during the winter months.

As winter gives way to spring, many local strawberry farmers open their fields for u-pick. While more gardens are cropping up everywhere – in backyards, communities, schools, and even the White House – you don’t have to spend hours tending a garden to eat healthier and spend less. The u-pick concept is exactly what the name implies…you go into the fields and pick your own fruits or vegetables. Since the farm doesn’t have to pay for harvesting, packaging, and shipping, with just a little effort and a lot of fun, you get the tasty berries at a reduced price.

What are the advantages of picking your own, you ask?  Well, first, the family eats healthier. More and more, research indicates that when children are involved in the basics of food preparation, they are more likely to eat it. Also, u-pick is great exercise for the entire family. Not only are you spending the day together in the fresh air and sunshine and creating memories, but you are engaging in an experience that can impact the health of your children for years to come.

Another plus is that it teaches children that all food doesn’t come from a grocery store or the fast food window. After spending an hour or two picking fruits or vegetables, your child will likely have a better understanding of what it takes to bring that food to the store and ultimately your table.

Strawberries tend to bruise easily, spoil quickly, and don’t ship well, so grocery stores charge steep prices. By cutting out the middleman, and going directly to the source, budget conscious families can save money – the average price for two quarts of strawberries at a u-pick farm is one dollar!

Wherever U-Pick, Plan Your Trip

Often the dates depend on the weather and market conditions, so it is important to call ahead. Farms often advertise in local papers for their u-pick operations, or you can check the Florida Strawberry Growers Association website at www.flastrawberry.com/u-pick.aspx for a list of the farms that are currently open to the public.

Don’t forget to stop at Parkesdale Farm Market on Hwy. 92 (I-4, Exit 17, ¼ mile east of Branch Forbes Road) for strawberry shortcake or a milkshake. The market is open air and not fancy, but it has a great reputation for serving delicious treats. It’s open 7 days a week from 9am to 6pm.

Check out the Parke Family HydroFarms in Dover, a few miles west of Plant City and pick-your-own hydroponic strawberries… they grow tall so you don’t have to stoop, bend or get dirty. Berries are a bit more expensive since they are priced by the pound. An appointment is necessary. Call 813.927.4049 or log on to (http://www.parkehydro.com/) for directions, operating times, and more information.

Drive a little further northeast and you will come across JG Ranch in Brooksville (2 miles west of Broad Street, Hwy41). It’s open for strawberry picking Thursday through Sunday  from 9am – 5pm.  They will provide buckets for easy picking and bags to take your strawberries home.  Log on to www.jgranch.com for directions and availability.

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U-Pick Strawberry Tips:

  • Dress comfortably in weather appropriate clothing and closed-toe shoes.
  • Wear a hat and bring sunscreen.
  • Bring your own containers to carry the fruit home – nothing too deep or the fruit may bruise.
  • Pack baby wipes or a wet washcloth in a baggie – berry picking is messy!
  • When picking berries, select only firm, ripe berries.
  • Do not remove the tops of the berries.
  • Bring an ice chest to keep your berries cool on hot, sunny days.

When you get your strawberries home, to prevent premature spoilage, you’ll want to keep them unwashed in the refrigerator until they are ready to be eaten. Try to eat or process your berries within two or three days to capture their best flavor.

~Florida Strawberry Growers Association

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The Florida Strawberry Festival

“Taste The Flavor of Fun!” at this year’s Florida Strawberry Festival. The Festival, which runs from March 3-13, 2011, is celebrating its 76th year and is ranked as one of the top events in North America. The family-friendly festival features headline entertainment, a midway full of fun rides, and everything strawberry, including delicious desserts, crafts and flats of the fruit to carry home.

The Florida Strawberry Festival is located at 303 North Lemon Street, between U.S. Hwy 92 and St. Rd. 574 in Plant City. From Orlando, take I-4 westbound toward Tampa to Exit 19 and follow the signs to the festival grounds.

For more information call 813.754.1996 or visit www.flstrawberryfestival.com.