May is strawberry time, and a lot of farmers have been getting ready for pickers since last August, when the plants went into the ground. Back then, none of us imagined we’d be facing lock-downs and quarantines during strawberry season. A late frost is one thing; COVID-19 is something else.
But the berries haven’t been paying attention to COVID-19. They’re going about their business, which is ripening up and getting ready to be picked. So farmers are getting ready to go about our business, too.
Most strawberry farms will be offering pick-your-own strawberries, but the experience will be different this year, as mandated by the CDC and state Departments of Health and Agriculture. Specific guidelines have been set to keep pickers and farmers as safe as possible. The berries won’t wait, but neither will the virus, so farmers will be asking for your support to help bring one in while keeping the other at bay.
Here are nine tips for making the most of your day in the field based on the guidelines in the state of Virginia.
- Do your Research~ Some berry farms may not be offering pick your own strawberries this year, so the first step is to Find a local berry farm with pick-your-own available and ask about their picking plan. How many people will be picking at one time in a given space? Will gloves be required? Face-coverings? Will sanitation sites be available? Will staff be present in the field? Then compare their answers to your comfort level.
2. Make an Appointment
This year it won’t be possible to wait for a beautiful day and set out to pick your own strawberries on the spur of the moment. Most Virginia farms that offer picking will be doing so by reservation, to control the number of people in the field at any given time and thus ensure safe social distance. Look for farms to offer an online booking system, with the understanding that appointments will depend on weather and crop conditions. Spots are likely to be released a day in advance so you may have to check back frequently for the opportunity to pick in 2020. Please be sure to only book appointments if you are well and healthy and cancel immediately if you develop signs of illness.
To ensure that your hands are the only ones that touch your berries, most farms won’t be weighing your berries and may not be taking cash payment for additional berries or items on site. Look for a set amount of strawberries to be included with your appointment time. Not sure how many strawberries you will actually be getting with your appointment? A quart of strawberries is about 1.5 pounds. Some farms may allow you to pre-pay for additional containers when you make your reservation. To maximize cleanliness, customers will likely be asked to use only new containers in the fields this season so leave your trusty PYO basket at home this season.
Wandering the field to find the perfect strawberries is not an option this season. To support social distancing and minimal hands touching strawberries, rows may be numbered, and each reservation will be assigned a specific section of a row. Farmhands will be in the field to ensure that customers respect those assignments. At the end of the reserved time slot, customers will be asked to exit the field so focus on filling your containers first and then taking some time for photos with your harvest.
Tempting as it may be to pop a berry into your mouth now and then, farmer ask you not to do that, for two reasons:
a) those strawberries constitute a farmer’s livelihood. The field is the farmer’s market place and if you eat berries instead of filling your basket, you are making an already challenging season even harder by taking more than you have paid for and perhaps depriving the next guest of their full container of strawberries.
b) You will likely be asked to sanitize your hands prior to picking strawberries this season. Your mouth is ground zero for COVID-19, so if you eat in the field, your hand becomes a virus delivery vehicle, leaving potentially infectious residue on the plants you touch.
6. Children & Pets
Strawberry picking is great fun for young and old alike, and after weeks in quarantine, it’s important for everyone to soak up some sun and reconnect with the soil’s microbiome. Please be sure your kids understand the different rules for picking this year. Remind them that their help is important because your time in the field is limited. And teach them that strawberries won’t get any riper once you pick them, so they should pick only berries that are already bright red. Kids are also low to the ground so encourage them to move the leaves around and pick all the ripe berries in your assigned area — not just on top, but also on the bottom.
Best leave your dog at home this year. Because you won’t have time to take your pup for a break outside the field, they certainly can’t “go” in the field and your focus will need to be on Strawberry picking, most farms will not allow pets. Even experienced farm pets won’t be welcome in the fields this year.
7. Put ‘em Up!
Strawberries don’t last very long, but you can savor their sunshine for months to come if you work them properly. Bring a cooler to transport your berries home after picking. Refrigerate them, unwashed in a plastic bag or container. Within 48 hours, you should either eat them, freeze them, or turn them into jam.
To freeze strawberries, wash them, pat them dry with paper towels, lay them on a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper (they shouldn’t be touching each other) and then put the cookie sheet in the freezer. Once the individual berries are frozen, store them in a Ziplock bag.
Here’s a simple recipe for strawberry jam from Southern Living, along with a list of all the supplies you’ll need.
Looking for a new spark for your cocktail or Popsicle? Check out this idea for strawberry nectar!
If you’re not able to secure an appointment or just not ready to get out and pick this season, be sure to pre-order your strawberries online. Many farms have fewer workers this year, and getting berries picked for retail sale may be a challenge. Ordering online helps farmers know how much to pick and thus avoid waste. Farms and Farmer’s Markets are offering curbside pick-up and drive-through services to support guests in these extraordinary circumstances.
9. Be Patient ~ Buying Local Sustains Farms and Our Community
These are unprecedented times, and these procedures are new to both farmers and customers alike. There will likely be some confusion along the way. Farmers are doing their best to create a safe, positive picking experience, and we thank you for your support and patience as we navigate this strawberry season together.
For more details on strawberry picking in northern Virginia, please review these guidelines published by the Virginia department of Agriculture.