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U-pick season in full swing in Niagara County

Short and sweet – that’s how the fickle strawberry season sometimes plays out, but as the ruby jewels dwindle in number, U-pick farms throughout Niagara County are gearing up for a busy July and August, with cherries and raspberries on the doorstep.

“We already have sweet cherries this weekend,” said Mindy Vizcarra of Becker Farms, 3724 Quaker Road, Gasport. “Knock on wood, the cherries look pretty good, but we don’t need it to rain anymore, because when they get to full size and it rains, they crack.”

Vizcarra said her family had been looking at a bumper crop of strawberries until a very unusual late May frost cut into the yield.

But, along with the cherries, red raspberries are expected around Saturday, with blueberries right behind, maybe by July 10, and, Vizcarra said, “so far, everything looks good.”

U-pick will continue at Becker Farms through apple season in the fall.

Vizcarra and her husband, Oscar, started the U-pick operation in the late 1970s, while they were still in college. It offers pickers a chance to get “up close and personal so that they know where their food comes from,” she said.

“You’re outside on a beautiful day and put a little effort into it, which always makes it taste better,” she said. “You can’t get any fresher than that. And, it’s a great experience for kids to learn that food doesn’t grow on the supermarket shelf. You also learn to appreciate what pickers go through, who might pick 100 or 200 or 300 baskets a day and learn how weather affects the job we do.”

James Bittner, of Bittner Singer Orchards, at 6730 E. Lake Road, Appleton, said U-pick on his 20 acres of cherries should start by the end of the week.

“And if the weather goes well, we should have cherries the entire month,” Bittner added.

He said his orchards boast four varieties of tart cherries, which will ripen at different times throughout the season, as well as 100 different varieties of sweet cherries.

“It’s a big, experimental orchard,” he said. “We have varieties from all over the world and we see how they do. If a variety does well, we’ll plant more.”

The first available cherries at his orchards will be Hungarian tart and black sweet varieties.

Despite the wacky weather – a harsh winter, warm spring sprinkled with the odd frost, drought then deluge of rain – Bittner said his cherry crop looks good, perhaps because it’s protected by its proximity to Lake Ontario.

“We’re going to have a huge tart cherry crop and really, a full crop of everything,” he said.

Bittner said there are two types of customers who visit U-pick farms.

“There are those interested in picking a lot so that they can freeze or can it, and there are those who pick just a little, but maybe want the experience and to give their kids exposure to how fruit grows on trees,” he noted. “We try to accommodate both.

“And, if people have questions, the odds are that there’s a farmer around the corner while they’re picking,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity to meet a real farmer.”

Conditions change daily, so it’s imperative that the smart picker always calls the hotline at the farm he or she is planning to visit that day for the most up-to-date information on fruit and vegetable availability.

As head of the Niagara County Farm Bureau, Bittner said pickers should also consult the pickniagara.org website, produced by the Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Farm Bureau, which offers information on an array of farms in the area.

Cathy Lovejoy Maloney, executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension Niagara, said she is currently trying to obtain funding for a phone app “geared to locals and to tourists” about this very topic, in order to offer the most current information.

“We want to help people experience local foods and engage in it,” she said. “Maybe someone would like to visit a U-pick farm, then a winery and then go to eat at a local restaurant that serves local foods. And we could literally update this information every day. We could list what’s in season and feature farms, farmers markets and agritourism.”

Apps for Android and iPhone will take the U-pick experience a world away from its origins, when farmers sometimes opened their farms to visitors to supplement their own picking.

The Coulter Farm, 3871 North Ridge Road, Lockport, has offered U-pick for more than a half-century and will have sweet cherries and raspberries in coming days, as strawberry season draws to a close.

David Coulter recalled recently that his father started the U-pick strawberry business in the 1960s, following his uncle Roger Coulter’s foray into U-pick cherries and raspberries.

“The strawberry fields got big and I went away to school and got a job, and my friends and I couldn’t pick anymore. My dad had to have another method, so he started U-pick,” he recalled.

Coulter, who is retired from Kodak, now operates the farm with his cousin Jeff Hall.

He called the recent strawberry season a very strange one. “It was a very warm May, with record amounts of rain that caused some berries to be soft and rot,” he said. “Then we had a couple of frosts, too, and some of the berries we might have had were lost to the frosts.”

Cherries also are fickle, he said. “It’s always a gamble,” he said. “Farmers don’t have to go to Vegas to gamble.”

But he said their U-pick operation is only 15 to 20 percent of the farm’s overall business. It also operates a farm market stand, which offers a wide variety of items from the farm and other local sources.

And the ripe and ready produce culled through U-pick doesn’t always hang from trees or grow on bushes – sometimes it’s underfoot.

Tom Szulist, who operates Singer Farm Naturals with his wife, Vivianne, at 6730 E. Lake Road, Appleton, said he’s looking forward to a “huge crop” of certified organic purple potatoes for U-pick around the end of July.

“It’s an amazing experience to get your hands in the earth,” Szulist said. “It’s an absolute delight. We have kids who pick 10 or 15 pounds of potatoes and they can’t stop because they’re having so much fun.”

Looking for something else unusual?

Murphy Orchards at 2402 McClew Road, Burt, currently has mulberries and rhubarb in addition to three varieties of sweet cherries for picking, with red and black currants and even gooseberries on the way.

“Because of this goofy spring, we’re way ahead of schedule,” said Zandy Murphy. “We don’t typically start picking sweet cherries until after the Fourth of July. But the cherries are beautiful and the trees are loaded.”

Murphy Orchards offers U-pick on a variety of fruits and vegetables usually until Halloween.

“We were concerned after the winter we had, but everything seemed to have survived just fine,” Murphy said.

Of course, once all of the fruit and vegetables have been picked, if they’re not eaten right away, they have to be preserved and that’s where Cooperative Extension Niagara steps in, again.

Jennifer Grier, a Cooperative Extension master food preserver, said she has seen a large uptick in interest in food preservation.

“It’s very popular right now,” she said. “People want to know where their food comes from and what ingredients are in their food, particularly if they have food allergies. And, if you preserve your own food, you know exactly what’s going into it and if you follow the rules, it’s very safe to do.”

Grier plans to offer a series of three food preserving classes in September, focusing on preservation basics, canning, and dehydrating. Visit cceniagaracounty.org for details.