Written by Mary Beth Heaton
We know blueberries are good for us-full of antioxidants, fiber, and vitamin C-but they’re also just plain good, whether they are in a cheesecake, atop a pancake, or plucked straight from the bush. While you could pick up a carton at the store, nothing beats the experience of picking them yourself. “We all need to experience a farm with our children,” says Chris Pinto, owner of Blue Harvest Farms in Covington. Blue Harvest is the largest you-pick farm in Southeast Louisiana, and Pinto is known for his organic farming practices. “We need to reconnect with nature in a pragmatic way; it’s great to teach children where things come from, which is not the grocery store.”
Berry Basics: Blueberries are native to North America, and rabbiteye varieties, named because of the pinkish color of the berries as they ripen, are most popular in our region. Farms grow multiple varieties for cross-pollination and so there are weeks’ worth of prime picking. At Hillcrest Blueberry Farm, the state’s largest blueberry farm with 139 acres in production, owner Chris Alexander grows about five different varieties, including sweet ‘Climax’ and large ‘Brightwell’ rabbiteye varieties.
When to Go: Though there’s some variation, most of the pick-your-own blueberry farms open to customers mid to late May or early June and they remain open until they’re picked clean or early to mid July, whichever comes first. Many are open seven days a week, but hours may vary. The rule of thumb: Always call before you go. Also, avoid the heat of the day by picking in the early morning or late afternoon. Some farms, including Blue Harvest and Hillcrest, send e-mails or post website updates about berry supplies and farm conditions to help guide customers.
What to Wear and Take With You: Both Alexander and Pinto agree: Closed-toe shoes are an absolute must to avoid ants. Rubber boots are suggested. A hat, loose clothing, and sunscreen are also good ideas. As for the supplies for picking, most farms have everything you need on site. Remember to bring cash or your checkbook, though a few farms, such as Hillcrest, do now accept credit.
How to Pick the Best Berries: “It’s important to pick the ripest berries,” says Pinto. “They fall easily from the bush when you roll your fingers on them, but know that they will continue to ripen off the bush when you get them home.” Though unripe berries will turn blue once they are picked, they aren’t near as sweet. Be careful not to bruise the berries as you pick them.
What to Do With Your Bounty: “The key to getting the most of your hard work in the field is to air out the berries on the way home-they are really hot,” says Pinto. “Cool them on the kitchen counter overnight and then [put them in] the fridge or freezer.” Do not wash berries before refrigerating or freezing them; it’s important to keep them dry. But do rinse them gently in cold water before eating. These fruits are ideal for freezing and eating year-round. Pinto enjoys eating frozen berries with is cereal or in vanilla ice cream.
Berries and a Bonus: May farms do offer more than just the experience of picking berries. Some offer family picnic areas and sell other fruits and vegetables. Shuqualak Farms, south of Shreveport, hands out homemade blueberry popsicles to pickers. At Hillcrest Blueberry Farm, visitors can also see the workings of a commercial farm. “They can come in an air-conditioned building and watch me grade and process flats,” says Alexander. For those that want to see this side of the business, Alexander posts what days he’ll be grading on his website. At Blue Harvest Farms, Pinto plans on hosting occasional twilight picks with live entertainment from 5pm to 8pm.