August 14, 2018
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If you love picking your own fruits and veggies, you’ll want to visit these Maine farms

Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
Nathan Hill, who owns Rocky Ridge Farm in Corinth, picks raspberries on his farm, where he has offered pick-your-own raspberries, pumpkins and gourds since the 1960s.
By Aislinn Sarnacki, BDN Staff
Updated:

There’s nothing fresher than a juicy raspberry straight off the bush, warm from a day in the sun. Or a carrot pulled from the ground, the soil still clinging to its tapered root. At pick-your-own farms, you can have just that — the freshest produce paired with the experience of harvesting it yourself. It’s a decades-old tradition that reconnects people with the land, local farmers and the changing seasons.

In Maine, pick-your-own farms offer the freshest produce and a special experience. And while the most popular pick-you-own items are berries, apples and pumpkins, farmers scattered throughout the state offer a much wider variety of pick-your-own products, including melons, peaches, flowers and corn. And since these berries, fruits and vegetables become ripe at different times, from spring to fall, there’s almost always something available to pick during growing season.

“Knowing the seasons is a very important part of pick your own,” said Eric Sideman, crop specialist for Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. “Someone drove up my driveway the other day and asked if the strawberries were almost ready.”

Sideman owned a pick-your-own strawberry operation in Greene from 1986 to 2009, then moved to Sanford, New Hampshire, and started a similar operation there. And in both locations, strawberry season begins in June and ends early in July.

Early August, on the other hand, is blueberry season in Maine. It’s also a time when many vegetables are ready to harvest, including corn, cucumbers, squash, beans and tomatoes. And it’s the beginning of peach season.

Maine is home to a long list of pick-your-own farms and orchards, and some of them have been in operation for generations but not without some difficulties. Changes in the economy and public’s attitude toward food has affected the pick-your-own business, for better and worse.

“I think it’s less popular than it used to be, and I’m not sure why,” Sideman said. “In my time, you know what’s become much less popular? People picking vast quantities for canning. I remember selling 100 pounds [of strawberries] to people, and they’d go home and can them up and freeze them. We still have a handful [of customers] who come and pick 30 to 40 pounds, but the majority are picking them to eat that night. They’ll pick a quart or two.”

Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
A sign marks the driveway to Rocky Ridge Farm in Corinth, where the Hill family offers pick-your-own raspberries, pumpkins and gourds.

Changing times

When Nathan and Sue Hill purchased Rocky Ridge Farm in Corinth in 1965, it was already being run as a pick-your-own farm, so they just carried on the tradition. Back then, locals would visit their fields to pick hundreds of ears of corn, which they shucked, stripped and canned. They also visited the farm to pick raspberries, pumpkins and gourds — all at prices lower than you could find in any grocery store.

“We sold corn three dozen for a dollar,” Nathan Hill, 80, said. “We sold hundreds and thousands, and then the food stamps came out [in the 1980s] and it almost busted us. We planted for people to come pick, but no one came because they’d go to the store and buy the canned corn with food stamps.”

So he picked the corn himself, loaded it into trucks and hit the road, selling the corn roadside in Millinocket, Greenville, Caribou, Brewer and Old Town.

“We’d go to all sorts of places just to get rid of the product,” he said.

Nowadays, he sells his corn at a self-service roadside stand on Main Street in Corinth, and he sells it wholesale to the local grocery store. He also continues to offer pick-your-own raspberries, pumpkins and gourds — three things that don’t seem to go out of style.

It may have to do with tradition, Nathan Hill said. It’s become a popular family-friendly activity to pick pumpkins and gourds in the fall for seasonal decorating and jack-o-lantern carving.

And when it comes to berries, the freshness, taste and cost of pick-your-own varieties can’t be beat. At the grocery store, a pint of raspberries currently costs around $5, and at Rocky Ridge Farm, a pint is $2.50. So for people who need several pints of berries — say to make pies, tarts or jams — picking them rather than buying them pre-picked will save them a lot of money, he said.

One of his regular customers picks 30-40 pints of berries a day, then resells them at a roadside stand. And that’s fine with him. He doesn’t have time to harvest 2 acres of raspberry plants. He’s too busy picking corn.

Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
Aislinn Sarnacki | BDN
Nathan Hill, who owns Rocky Ridge Farm in Corinth, picks raspberries on his farm Aug. 1.

Surprising variety

Pick-your-own apples, strawberries and pumpkins are fairly common throughout Maine, but some farmers are specializing in pick-your-own products that may come as a surprise.

A wide variety of pick-your-own flowers are available at Little River Flower Farm in Buxton. Cherries and plums are among the pick-your-own offerings at Doles Orchard in Limington. And peaches are available at Berry Best Farm in Lebanon.

“My dad started the peaches in the mid-1950s,” said Chris Bozak, who owns Berry Best Farm with her husband, John Bozak. “We have a good site for it, up on a hill with a lot of drainage, which is important for frost control. I don’t know why he didn’t do apples. He just loved peaches, I guess.”

Bozak moved back to the farm in 1996 and started offering pick-your-own peaches, as well as highbush blueberries and raspberries. Carrying on a tradition her mother started, Chris Bozak cooks mini muffins for her customers, many of whom return year after year, bringing with them their children, then their grandchildren.

“A number of years ago I did a little survey myself about why people want to come,” Chris Bozak said. “They like the fresh fruit, and they like to pick it as a family, as a recreational thing. And also, they just like to come to the farm. It’s an experience, I guess. People always say it’s beautiful here.”

Just down the road, Spiller Farm is arguably the king of pick-your-own farms. In addition to the common pick your own crops — the apples, blueberries, strawberries and pumpkins — they offer pick-your-own pears, melons, tomatoes and a wide variety of vegetables. Their business model is to allow customers to pick their own produce at a discounted price, and it has worked for their farm for decades.

When Bill and Anna Spiller purchased the farm in 1967, they learned that the previous owner had offered pick-your-own strawberries on the property. So they continued the tradition, then opened up their young apple orchard to customers as well.

“Then people would see the other crops growing and ask if they could pick some,” Bill Spiller recalled. “I had a ton of tomatoes, and I had people who made spaghetti sauce wanting to pick them. So I cut the price way down and had ‘you pick,’ and it’s amazing how many we sold.”

From there they continued to expand their pick-your-own experience, opening up their gardens bit by bit to the public.

During the week, many of their customers are locals who enjoy walking the property and gathering produce at a low price. And on the weekends, they get more families and tourists. Located just 3 miles from the interstate, the farm attracts vacationers traveling up from Boston and other areas, and to many of these travelers, the pick-your-own experience is entirely new.

“I think people are a lot better off getting this type of produce from local farms, fresh from the soil, than having it shipped in [from far away],” Bill Spiller said. “So many of our customers say, ‘Oh my gosh. This tastes so good. How come it tastes so different?’”

Near the farm’s “you pick” stand, the Spillers grow rows of carrots because in dry conditions, customers need to borrow shovels to loosen the dirt and dig them up. And manning the booth, Bill Spiller gets to watch the excitement.

“Many people, especially kids, don’t have any idea that carrots come from the ground,” he said. “They’re absolutely thrilled when they see how some of these things work. It seems to be a big deal for kids to be able to dig a few carrots.”

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