You can buy your rock-hard strawberries, tired carrots and soggy lettuce in the grocery store. Or you can have an experience, harvesting the best local produce yourself. U-pick farms are the way to go, especially during the time of COVID. A trip to a u-pick provides you with many things you crave: a road trip, an outing away from crowds, fresh local produce, outdoor exercise (all that bending is great for the abs), and a chance to learn more about farm life and growing things. And when you get home, there’s the chance to eat your fill, make jams and pickles, or even try your hand at a fresh-baked fruit pie.

U-picks are found in all ten Canadian provinces, though growing seasons vary. For example, strawberries are already finished in the Niagara region of Ontario while they aren’t even ripe in Alberta. To find a u-pick near you, look on line or go to https://ca.pickyourown.farm/, a website that lets you find who’s offering what in some of the farms near your home. It also identifies, where known, the farms that are organic, sustainable or pesticide-free.

Contrary to what city slickers like me might see as an extra to help supplement farm income or a way to get rid of surplus crops, u-pick farms can be lucrative businesses.

“U-picks are definitely a part of a farm’s business plan, not an afterthought,” said Marlene Huntley, Executive Director of Horticulture Nova Scotia. “The producers set aside fields specifically for this purpose. They need the public to come and depend on that labour and income.”

That is particularly important this year when COVID has created a shortage of farm workers. Time-sensitive crops like fruit are ripening now right through to October and you will find many opportunities to pick your own fruit: cherries (mid-July), peaches, apricots and pears (mid-July to end of August) and apples (fall) in the fruit-growing orchards of British Columbia, Southern Ontario and the Maritimes.

Berries are another popular U-pick crop: strawberries, raspberries, saskatoons, blueberries, sour cherries, mulberries and a relative newcomer, the Haskap, are among the varieties. (Haskaps, also called honeyberries, taste like a raspberry/blueberry combo and are said to help prevent cancer.) Many u-picks offer both greenhouse berries and field berries for picking, which allows them to keep things going for a longer season and during bad weather. And then there’s the vegetable crops: tomatoes (tasty salsa and spaghetti sauce to enjoy all winter), potatoes, peas and so much more.

The farm operations offering u-picks vary from very small (one site says “Pick up your pails in the shack at the end of the driveway and come see us to settle the bill when you’re done.”) to sophisticated operations with garden centres, cafes, live music, special events, playgrounds, corn mazes, gift shops and farm tours. The garden centre at The Saskatoon Farm south of Calgary and Prairie Gardens and Adventure Farm SE of Edmonton are already in full swing for in-person shopping or pick-up orders, even though most of their berries won’t be ready for picking until the end of July. However, COVID has put a damper on some of the activities these bigger centres usually offer.

COVID rules for u-picks include sanitizing your hands when entering or exiting the fields, maintaining social distancing, not touching items you don’t intend to buy, wearing masks in the sales centre and in some cases, signing a declaration you aren’t sick and will abide by health rules. As well, most of the food booths, markets and washrooms are closed. Many u-picks restrict groups to six persons or less and a maximum of two in the sales centre.

However, the actual picking is as safe as it comes. At Pleasant View U Pick Berries, a family farm near Crossfield, Alberta, the berries are planted 16-20 feet (5-6 meters) apart and the rows are 200 feet long (61 metres). (This spacing allows for a mechanical harvester if the farm chooses to use one.) Don and Linda Rush started this u-pick 10 years ago when they ended their dairy operation. “It took us five years to get it fully operational, “said Linda who runs the U-pick, “but we’ve finally been able to turn a profit over the past five years.”

Alberta has had cold, wet weather for months so it’s too soon to tell if COVID has slowed the numbers coming to u-pick farms there. In Ontario, most of them are up and running but a few farms have closed their doors this year due to COVID. In Nova Scotia where Huntley lines, she reports the u-picks are operating and very busy.

Interested? There’s a few things you need to know: call ahead and book an appointment (especially important with COVID limitations); bring your own buckets if you have them (ice-cream pails are ideal as they have lids); bring a hat, sunscreen, bug spray and water; and be prepared to pay in cash or by cheque at the smaller operations. And the most important thing of all, wear a smile.