Editor's Note: This version of the story corrects the name of Mrs. Mora's husband Fernando.
As a little girl at her parents’ fruit farm, Martha Mora remembers so many people coming to pick strawberries that she’d be sent out to the road to turn people away.
“The entire patch would be picked over before noon,” Mrs. Mora said recently. “My job was to have people not come in and get caught in the traffic.”
That was nearly 40 years ago. As canning became less popular and economic prospects improved, fewer people showed up at Johnston Fruit Farms to trudge into the fields and bring back their own harvest.
Now Mrs. Mora and her husband, Fernando, run the farm and orchard. And during the last few years they have seen a revival in customers eager to pick their own fruit.
Agricultural experts say they’ve noticed a renewed interest in “you pick” farms across Ohio and Michigan.
“This trend really started back in the late ’70s and early ’80s and hit its peak about that time. For some fruit crops it began to dwindle a bit, but six or seven years ago it began to come back. Now I have more pick-your-own farms than I did in the heyday,” said Bob Tritten, a district fruit educator with Michigan State University Extension who has spent 35 years helping Michigan growers care for and market their produce.
The economy can have something to do with it. In many cases, consumers get a better price if they pick produce themselves. It’s also fun to teach children a little about how farms work. For foodies, you simply can’t get anything fresher than what comes right off the vine.
But one of the biggest reasons “you pick” farms have seen their popularity surge is the growing number of people who go out of their way to buy local.
“It’s one thing to be able to say that it’s grown in Ohio, but when you’re actually on the farm, seeing them on the tree, it doesn’t get any more local than that,” said Bill Dodd, president of the Ohio Fruit Growers Marketing Association.
Local growers say they see a lot of satisfaction in that.
“I think that’s probably the biggest thing. They like to know where the stuff came from. There might be the sense that they picked it, they got the satisfaction of picking their own stuff, plus they’re the ones that handled it. They know where, and what, and when. I think that has a lot to do with it,” said Mike Hoen, owner of Hoen’s Orchard in Delta.
People are perhaps most familiar with “you-pick” opportunities in apple orchards and pumpkin patches. But there’s a wide range of fruits and vegetables grown on northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan “you pick” farms that ripen throughout the year.
For some farms, “you pick” is a novelty that’s only a small part of the business. For others, it’s the only business they do.
“There’s probably not a lot of people making a living with pick your own apples as their sole source of income. However, it’s a pretty important piece to a lot of growers,” Mr. Dodd said.
At Whittaker Berry Farm in Ida, Mich., Marilyn and Bill Whittaker grow strawberries and raspberries. They don’t sell to wholesalers or at farmers’ markets — everything grown there is sold there. They harvest some strawberries themselves but leave it up to the customers to pick the raspberries.
“It’s too hard for us to be able to pay someone to pick them,” Mrs. Whittaker said. “For what we’d have to turn around and sell them for, it's just financially not doable.”
The Whittakers both grew up on farms. Mrs. Whittaker’s parents operated a now-gone large berry farm near where she and her husband started theirs six years ago.
“People really missed it,” she said. “People love to bring their families out. We have all ages come out. We’ll have people 80, 90 years old coming out because it reminds them of when they were kids.”
Perhaps more important are the visitors without those memories.
It used to be nearly everyone was a generation or two removed from the farm. Many had a grandfather or an aunt with a big garden or a couple fruit trees. That’s less true now.
Mr. Dodd recalls hosting a group of kindergartners at his orchard. One had a burning question for the teacher: Why didn’t the apples have stickers on them?
It’s a cute story, but it also shows how disconnected we have become from how our food is produced.
“A lot of kids have lost that contact with knowing where their food comes from,” Mrs. Mora said. “And that’s sad. Knowing it and seeing it and touching it and tasting it brings a value to our next generation.”
Customers also benefit from a price standpoint.
Savings vary by product, but shoppers usually get “you pick” produce at a price resembling wholesale.
Mrs. Whittaker said “you pick” strawberries were priced at $1.35 a pound last year, while buying them already picked cost $3.25 a quart. That works out to savings of a little more than a dollar a quart for those willing to pick it themselves.
Apples, on the other hand, often sell for the same price at orchards whether they’re picked by the customer or the farmer.
Farmers do save considerably on harvest costs by having customers do it themselves. Mr. Tritten estimated the cost of picking makes up 20 to 30 percent of the total annual cost for raising raspberries and strawberries, and up to 40 percent of the total annual cost for apples.
However, operators of “you-pick” farms typically experience some loss in the fields, whether it’s from someone sampling a few berries or accidentally knocking down apples that end up rotting on the ground. There can also be costs and considerable planning associated with opening up a farm to the public, said Julie Fox, a direct marketing specialist with the Ohio State University Extension.
Generally, though, Ms. Fox said the business model works out for both farmers and consumers. Farmers make a little bit extra, while shoppers pay a little bit less.
There’s another little thing working in farmers’ favor with “you-pick” operations — they’re also selling entertainment.
“[Customers] also are looking for that experience, whether they’re bringing the children or grandchildren, or a group of tourists coming into town looking for something unique or local,” Ms. Fox said. "They want something beyond a food dollar. They’re also spending an entertainment dollar.”
That’s led some to branch out into other retail operations and themed events such as fall hay rides.
Many local farms now are preparing for the red raspberry harvest. Apple harvests will start sometime in mid-September. Operators suggest people check their Facebook pages or Web sites or call ahead for up-to-date information on what’s ripe and when they can pick.
Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at email@example.com or 419-724-6134