When it comes to farm-fresh produce, a little do-it-yourself — in the form of visiting a pick-your-own farm — can go a long way to saving you cash.
Pick-your-own farms (or U-picks, as they are commonly called) are those where the farmer sets aside fields for the purpose of allowing visitors to harvest their own produce. Typically, it’s weighed and sold by the pound, although plenty of farms go by container size, too. Available produce varies by farm and area, with picking starting as early as March for asparagus and ending when the last apples come off the tree in September or October.
Compared with the supermarket or farmer’s market, savings per pound at u-picks range from 20 percent to 50 percent, depending on the item, says John Slemmer, the founder of Pick Your Own, which lists u-pick locations nationwide. Generally, the more you buy, the better the price – making u-picks an especially good deal for people who want to make homemade jams, pickles, jellies and other preserves. (Frugal Foodie goes every year to get her favorite fruits: raspberries, strawberries and blueberries, freezing enough to enjoy year round.)
Trying a u-pick farm is also a great way to support local farms, many of which use sustainable or organic farming methods, says David Becker of Friend of the Farmer. You’re also getting a great product, because it was picked at the height of freshness.
Here’s how to get the best deal on a u-pick visit:
That gives you a chance to check prices and policies, as well as the condition of the fields. “They can get picked out pretty quick,” Slemmer says. Some fruits can ripen overnight, like strawberries, but others may take a day or two for enough to ripen to make a visit worthwhile. It’s also worth asking about any policies that might prove problematic — a few farms frown on bringing kids along, others may have a minimum charge for u-pick goods.
Time your visit
Mornings are best, especially if you plan to visit on a weekend, when crowds are bigger. Try to wait until the weather has been clear for a few days: some fruits soak up more rain than others, leading to a watery, bland taste, says Becker.
Nearby farms tend to be competitive with each other on price, so check several against each other and the going rates at your supermarket. Be sure to compare similar quantities and quality (especially if it’s organic). Factor in the cost to get there, too, with gas at an average $4 per gallon nationwide.
Ask about discounts
Some farms will offer them if you’re buying a substantial quantity say, a few bushels of apples to make applesauce, Slemmer says. Others will offer a deal on pre-picked “seconds,” the fruit that isn’t as pretty but just as tasty. Slemmer paid $6 a bushel for apple seconds last year, compared with the farm’s usual rate of $15 to $20.
Containers, that is. Farms sometimes provide big buckets, but more often hand over smaller containers for things like berries, Becker says. If your aim is to pick a lot, juggling several while simultaneously trying to pick gets frustrating fast.
Ask whether the farmer uses pesticides or fungicides, and how recently a field was sprayed, Becker says. Many farmers practice organic methods, but don’t have the substantial time and money it takes to get certified. It also depends on the crop. Blueberries rarely need chemical spray, but strawberries, apples and peaches often do, he says. It’s still fine to pick and buy that fruit, but knowing could dictate how much you decide to sample in the field.
Prepare for a full day
Collecting enough fresh-picked fruits and vegetables can take a few hours in the field, so plan appropriately. Wear sunscreen and bring water. But there are other reasons to make u-pick a full day trip – more farms offer other free or cheap agri-tainment, like petting zoos, mazes and horseback rides.
Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.