There’s a soft old irresistible ring to it, like goin’fishin’.Goin’pickin’ ... discovering the laconic harvest innocence and rural scents that run scarce in the local supermarket. Every year, more Canadian city-dwellers, thousands more, are going out to the fields, as much for the delectable outing as for the bargain, gathering their own blueberries, peaches, apples, strawberries, sweet cherries, corn, cucumbers, walnuts. Picking your own produce might not be important, but out there in the fields in the sunshine siblings don’t squabble, and a 72-year-old Vancouver man says he feels a lot younger when he leaves the raspberry patch than when he came in. It’s a soul-mending change from vacuuming around the house on a Saturday morning and clearing the view with Windex.
Across the country, wherever fruit and vegetables are grown, pick-yourown produce (or “U-Pick,” as people insist on calling it) has become a healthy
business of its own, particularly for small farmers near cities. Dr. Jean-Paul Landry, a Dalhousie, N.B., general practitioner and gentleman farmer who wanted more from his 30-acre property when he bought it four years ago than a good sideline income, has a particularly healthy attitude to the business—which he works at Wednesdays and leaves in the hands of his brother and partner, Rosaire, for the rest of the week. “I thought that providing food and exercise was a great thing to do,” he says. “Psychologically, U-Pick is a great family experience.” Operating on a larger scale, Sam Moyer of Beamsville, Ont.,
has converted 75 per cent of his 140-acre farm to U-Pick and draws crowds from the first crops in summer to the last apples in autumn. Over a single weekend 3,000 people, many from nearby Toronto, come to pick at his Cherry Avenue Farms Ltd. He thrives on them, financially and emotionally. “You have to like people,” he says. “They start phoning you at 7 o’clock in the morning.”
The huge U-Pick favorite among pickers and farmers alike is the strawberry—that luscious but too-tender first fruit of the season. Fully 70 per cent of all fresh strawberries sold in Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are now U-Pick. Retailers’ and buyers’ shared abhorrence of damaged fruit has undoubtedly encouraged the U-Pick trend, which seems strongest in Ontario. In the past decade, U-Pick farms have more than tripled there from 70 to 240 and Toronto even has a 24-hour telephone line where you can ask to be sent the local U-Pick list. The farms in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have
doubled in the past five years, while in British Columbia (where most fruit is still picked commercially and shipped directly to large canneries) they have increased by a modest third.
In the fields, there’s an ebullient mix. On one sunny Saturday morning in Richmond, B.C.,where U-Pick signs are w strung up and down the highways, 72> year-old Henry Soriala, feeling younger * all the time, is picking raspberries with £ a visiting lady friend from Sudbury, Ont.; eight vacationing Albertans are picking the astonishingly large B.C. blueberries to take home and show off as souvenirs; children are eating berries
and happily filling their little yogurt containers. Says one five-year-old: “It’s a lot more fun than cleaning your room.” Sheila Calvert, her son, 21, and three teen-age daughters, have been coming out to pick berries several times every summer for five years. This year they bought a freezer to accommodate their freshly picked blueberries. “We like eating them later, but best of all is picking them,” she says. “Being close to nature is very therapeutic. We feel good out here together. The family that picks
together sticks together, right? And it’s only a half-hour drive from the pressures of the city.” Most people mention the bargains: about 35 to 40 cents less a pound than supermarket prices for raspberries and strawberries and 40 cents a dozen less for corn. That’s a boon if you’re picking large quantities for freezing. And then there’s the quality: your own pailful of strawberries, each one succulent and freshly picked, is vastly different from the tasteless supermarket variety in which, more often than not, bruised and green berries lurk at the bottom of the box.
For many farmers, U-Pick has been a financial boon. Some farmers with small four-acre farms are now growing strictly for the U-Pick market. Farmers can take advantage of demand and set their own prices rather than concede to the wholesalers. Near cities, the public is built-in labor and market. Impulse buying is high. And at the majority of farms where commercial picking for canneries is still the mainstay, U-Pick does a beautiful mop-up job, squeezing out the last bit of juice. But perhaps the most important advantage of U-Pick is its solution to the labor problem—a recent Ontario Ministry of Agriculture survey of U-Pick farms concluded that harvest labor is becoming the labor problem of the ’80s.
The farm laborer shortage is aggravated by most native Canadians’ refusal to do the work, which they consider menial. In the perception of Richmond farmer Katie Bissett, negotiating with pickers is a daily Let's Make a Deal, complete with interpreters for the many recent immigrants. “Workers want us to pay for three containers for every two they pick, or they will leave and go home. They have to bring their small children, who tear up the vines, or they won’t come. They won’t work if it’s
raining. At peak season there are no unemployed pickers and at the drop of a hat they will leave your crop to rot.” But farm workers and the B.C.-based Canadian Farm Workers Union don’t feel particularly threatened by the U-Pick phenomenon. At least not yet. “If it keeps growing, I can see it becoming a problem next year,” says union Presi-
dent Raj Chouhan. “No wonder farmers like it. It’s straight money. They don’t pay pickers and they don’t have to take anything to the cannery.”
U-Pick isn’t for every farmer. In fact, some have found it a ghastly experience. Says one farmer on Vancouver Island who wishes to remain anonymous because he sometimes needs U-Pick: “When you see people tearing at your vines, it’s the same feeling as if they were in your house climbing all over your sofa and piano. You run one ad and people swarm all over the place. Some even bring their own cream and sugar and have a free picnic.” As well, the UPick farmer has additional expenses, including the costs of advertising and of hiring supervisors (who ensure that people don’t trample vines and that they pick every ripe berry, not just the fat luxurious ones). Farmers have no insurance against the weather; if it pours rain for two weeks, as it sometimes does in B.C.’s Fraser Valley, the farmer is out of luck. He may not get rid of his entire crop.
But weekend pickers rarely consider the larger economics of the business. They come for themselves—for the bargain, the taste, the trip to the country. After 10 years, Beamsville farmer Sam Moyer still appreciates their self-absorption. “I enjoy the different moods for different produce,” he says. “For the glamorous strawberry, women are all businesslike and rather cold-blooded,
picking for the year’s supply. For sweet cherries, it’s all jolly and fun-loving.” The faces of people out picking are relaxed, freed from the grimness epidemic in supermarkets. Cheeks are warmed and psyches soothed by sun and pleasure. “Just seeing the big berries gives you joy,” says one buoyant woman, her white hair rolled up precisely like her twin sister’s, who is picking with her. To pale hands that work with paper all week, the touch of fruit is soft, and real. ;£>
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