Thursday, July 5, 2012

Feeling Fruity: Michigan U-Pick Experiences

In the past month, Sean and I have picked fruit at three very different U-Pick operations in Mid-Michigan.

We picked strawberries at a large production farm, blueberries at a popular cider mill and entertainment-focused farm, and currants from a back yard garden in Lansing. At each location the end result was fresh, delicious fruit that costs far less than buying lesser-quality fruit from the grocery store or farmers' market.

Strawberry Picking at Felzke Farms
Some weeks ago, Sean and I had the good fortune of finding ourselves in the best strawberry plot at  Felzke Farms. It was hot out, but I was glad of my long pants while I crawled between the rows. Felzke Farms is Michigan's largest strawberry producer, and has been a local U-Pick favorite for years. Sean and I had done some reconnaissance while buying 20 lbs of asparagus in the spring, so we knew what we were up against.

We arrived relatively early - around 9 a.m. - and were the last people to score a spot in the BEST strawberry field at Felzke (according to the lovely librarian picking a few rows over). I have never tasted a better strawberry. I know this doesn't sound like a big deal, but man, these strawberries can change your perspective on life.

About an hour in the field earned us roughly 40 lbs of the ripest, reddest, juiciest Michigan strawberries on the face of the planet (probably). We dehydrated some to put in granola and oatmeal, made a big batch of strawberry jam and froze the rest. Sucking on a frozen strawberry is one the best ways to combat this outrageously dry, hot summer.

Felzke Farms is a production farm, first and foremost. They offer U-Pick strawberries on the side because they have an abundance of strawberries, and there are crazy people like us who are willing to PAY the farm to pick their berries. It's a good deal for the farm, and a good deal for us! These strawberries are WAY better than those we bought by the quart-full from Kroger 2 years ago, or the farmers' market last year. Cheaper, too.

Blueberry Picking at Uncle John's Cider Mill
 The 6-foot blueberry bushes were drooping from the weight of countless ripe berries when we pulled up to the U-Pick field last Sunday. It was a steamy afternoon - about 90 degrees - and we were the only folks there. We bought a pre-paid 10 pound U-Pick box (about $25). An hour later it was overflowing with the best blueberries I've ever tasted!

We've stocked ourselves with delicious blueberry jam, dried blueberries to snack on, frozen blueberries for my oatmeal and a few cans of berries to bake with over the next year. Last night's blueberry crumble was a beautifully violent purple-blue hue that stained our mouths. Yum!

Of course, you don't HAVE to slave away in the sun to get lots of berries for a good price. At Uncle John's you can buy a pre-filled 10 lbs. box for $25 - way cheaper than the grocery store or farmer's market. We opted to pick our own because we like it, and because the berries taste better if you work a little harder for them. The pre-filled boxes are not as fresh, but still a great deal.

Uncle John's is primarily an entertainment location and cider mill, not a production farm like Felzke. They boast sprawling orchards, a winery, a pie house, delicious donuts and cider, U-Pick pumpkins, a fun corn maze and all sorts of family-friendly attractions. They've recently expanded to offer blueberries, asparagus and strawberries to keep people coming in the mill's "off-season". It's working!

Currant Picking in Old Town, Lansing
Sean and I spent our Independence Day morning in Old Town at our friend Lisa's home, picking eight pounds of currants. I love picking currants. Currant bushes don't grow quite as tall as blueberry bushes, but they provide ample shade as I root around, plucking their fruits. Have you ever seen fresh currants? They're lovely little red gems strung together in a way similar to grape bunches.

Picking currants at Lisa's was a significant moment for the two of us - an anniversary, of sorts. Last summer we experienced our first Picking excursion in this very same same back yard on the Grand River. It was hot and dirty work, and I did not enjoy myself. Still, it held a special charm, and the fruits of our labor (pun-tastic!) were well worth a sweaty hour or two. We juiced our berries with various devices, and they will soon become clear, tasty currant jelly.

Lisa is the opposite of massive operations like Felzke Farms and Uncle John's. She's an regular person with a job and a life... a big, back-yard garden. She planted a row of currant bushes years ago, and each season she allows strangers (like us) to come and pick them for a very low price.  It's easy for her, easy for us, and we both benefit.

Since picking currants last summer, we've harvested apples from Clam Lake Orchard (near Torch Lake), a few bushels of huskcherries from Pregitzer Farm, wild raspberries from the areas surrounding "Barton's Blind", a gorgeous Douglas Fir Christmas tree at Peacock Road Tree Farm, the aforementioned strawberries, blueberries, currants and countless other crops from our own gardens.

It's pretty cool, to say the least.

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