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It's Time to Pick in the Strawberry Fields

Strawberries filled the trunk of the car when daughter Gretchen, sons Mike and Davy and I picked in Dover.

The card arrived in the mail on St. Patrick's Day this year announcing that my favorite farm's strawberry fields are officially open for picking. One field on Dover Road opened in mid February with the price at 2 quarts for $1, still a bargain. Prices last year were mostly 3 for $1. Other years they have been as inexpensive as 5 for $1, but that may be part of the past. At any rate, you save a bundle by picking your own and can find fields very close to Brandon. So get ready to fill you freezer.

If you've picked in other states, you'll find it easier in Florida because the rows are slightly raised and berries are most often fairly abundant.

Go early in the day if you can because it is cooler and early in the season because you never know when it will end. The wrong kind of weather can end the season quickly.

Take plastic gloves if you want. I'd rather pick bare handed myself. Take kettles that are not too deep. A larger, flatter box or dish pan keep the berries from crushing one another. Also take drinking water and a wet wash cloth for when you finish.

My grandsons have gone along since they were babies and have been good pickers since they could walk. But be sure children treat both the berries and the plants with the respect due.

I can pick almost 20 quarts in an hours or so and I figure it takes twice as long to wash them, cut off the tops and put them in freezer bags when I get home. Some year I go three times.

This year my sister and I picked at the IFAS fields at the Gulf Coast Research Center in Balm the first week in March. This is where IFAS plants and tries new varieties. [ One called Strawberry Festival has become the most common variety planted in the fields across the county since its release in 2000 because it give a steady supply of high-quality fruits under a range of weather conditions. It was developed by Craig Chandler, professor of horticulture, who also developed Sweet Charlie, a delicious early season fruit with resistance to fruit rot in 1992.] m.o.

Dedicated pickers work all over the field. What looks like terrible waste between the mounds is the result of their cleaning the plants.

Here they also work to help growers with diseases and pests.

Because these are not commercial fields, Master Gardeners and selected people volunteer every Thursday morning (because they spray on Friday) starting in January and continuing through March to pick and clean the rows.

I was a little worried about the chore because I've always picked until I was tired before, and this time I was committing to something that Dave Beck of Brandon described as taking two hours. That, and for the company, was why I took my visiting sister along. Our younger sister thought we were both crazy to do "all that work", and we are, but we've done much other and crazier picking over many years.

When we found the place, we were sent to opposite ends of a 310 foot long row and asked to pick just the one side. We were also instructed to pull off and throw down between the rows any over ripe berries or any that were 75% ripe, too green for picking but sure to be over ripe by the next Thursday. The last went against the grain, but we did as we were told. I never was so glad to see my sister as when we met in the middle of that row. It took us about an hour and a half.

Other, more dedicated pickers had been there for four hours when we left.

Dotty Serra of Lithia had picked a half row every Thursday last winter and since February this winter. It took her a good three hours every week. "I give the berries to my children and my neighbors," she says, "and my husband and I eat them on our cereal or cottage cheese every day. One day last year I picked for four hours in dusty heat and had to call my husband to meet me with the Motrin and get a hot bath and my bathrobe ready."

While those berries were "free", I figure what I paid in gas will pay for what I pick from local fields. You'll never got more fruit for $4 or 5 and an hour's work, and it is good for all of us to get a taste of what our farm workers are doing for us.