Anyone who loves fresh fruits and vegetables will wax endlessly about buying locally, eating what's in season and knowing the farmer. But not all may realize that some Long Island farms are offering the ultimate culinary experience -- allowing you to pick your own. Sure, everyone thinks of picking strawberries and apples, but the list of U-pick fruits and vegetables is a lot longer.
If you know where to go, you can get a bushel and a peck of peaches, a mess of black-eyed peas, a passel of okra, a mound of tomatoes or potatoes and even thump or tap a melon or two to see if it's ripe.
"I like that you can pick what you want, and only as much of what you want," says Carmela Cacciatore, 64, of Freeport, who has been going to Davis Peach Farm in Wading River for 20 years. "I like to make peach pies for the kids and grandkids. These are so much better than what you get in the store, where you don't know where they're from or how long they've been there."
WHAT YOU CAN PICK
Davis Peach Farm, which has been in existence for 105 years, has offered U-pick stone fruits since 1991, including white- and yellow-flesh peaches, plums, nectarines and apples. Peach picking, which traditionally starts around July 4, continues through September.
Variety is definitely the spice of U-pick life. For example, Cooper's Farm in Mattituck was growing okra and other specialty vegetables long before fried okra and black-eyed peas started popping up on Long Island restaurant menus. In business since the 1820s, the farm has been in the family continually and has offered U-pick produce for 40 years.
"We pick what is fresh and looks good," says Carrie Cogan, 43, of Bellport, who had stopped by Cooper's Farm on a late Saturday afternoon to harvest some veggies for the grill the next day. "I am from Oklahoma and am used to knowing the farmer and buying locally. You wander the field and peek in the vines to find what you want."
Cogan came away with zucchini, onions and other squash before heading across the field to the huge patch of tomatoes in search of both ripe red ones and the green ones she uses for fried tomatoes.
When going to pick, it's a good idea to call ahead to check what's ripe that day. Some farms have rows numbered to direct pickers to what is available. The signs at Cooper's Farm tell pickers to peel back vines and plants to find ripe produce.
Unsure what to do? Don't hesitate to ask the farm staff for help.
"You can't pick vegetables without a little damage," says farm owner Doug Cooper, 66, who rotates crops annually to keep soil healthy. "I just ask that people be respectful of the fields -- and no high heels."
RULES OF THE GAME
The first thing pickers should know is to expect to pay cash at most places. While most farms have baskets for picking, some also have wagons that can be taken into the field.
Most things are sold by weight. For example, Cooper says his prices average around $1.50 to $2 a pound if you pick, and a little more at the farm stand.
"You'll pay $12 for a pound of zucchini blossoms, but a pound is a lot of zucchini blossoms," Cooper says with a laugh. "And later in the season, as the crop peaks, the price goes down. By the end of tomato season, you may pay about $1.25 a pound."
And though your best friend might have a field day, dogs are not permitted on the grounds of most farms.
A TASTE OF TRADITION
Daniel and Addie Hampton, 67 and 66, respectively, drive from North Babylon to Lewin Farms in Wading River for peaches almost every week.
"I'm a Southern guy at heart, and picking peaches takes me back," says Daniel, who also introduced their children and grandchildren to picking their own produce.
"We wanted to teach them about healthy eating and a respect for farmers," Daniel says.
While most farms allow picking if there is a sprinkle or light rain, heavy storms will likely delay picking. Dress comfortably in walking shoes for both your safety and to avoid damage to the fields. Most farms are cash only. And, as a rule, dogs are not allowed in the fields.
WHEN l WHERE 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily (starts Sept. 27), 26 Pinelawn Rd. and Route 110, Melville
INFO 631-271-3276, schmittfarms.com
SELECTIONS Eggplant, string beans, tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins
PRICING 99 cents per pound for vegetables
WHEN | WHERE 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Aug. 16-17, Garden of Eve Organic Farm and Market, 4558 Sound Ave., Riverhead
INFO 631-722-8777, gardenofevefarm.com
ADMISSION $3; free ages 6 and younger
Take part in the judging of 20 varieties of heirloom and traditional tomatoes. The day also will include salsa-making demos and a hayride to the U-pick cherry tomato patch.
HALLOCKVILLE TOMATO TASTING
WHEN | WHERE 2 and 3:30 p.m. Aug. 24, Hallockville Museum Farm, 6038 Sound Ave., Riverhead
INFO 631-298-5292, hallockville.com
ADMISSION $12 advance, $15 day of event
Invincible Summer Farms in Southold will bring about 30 of its more than 350 varieties of heirloom tomatoes. Invincible's Stephanie Gaylor will discuss biodiversity and seed-saving.
INFO 631-298-5292, hallockville.com
TOMATO AND GARLIC TASTING
WHEN|WHERE 1-7 p.m. Aug. 23, Biophilia Organic Farm, 211 Manor Lane, Jamesport
INFO 631-722-2299, localharvest.org
Farmer Phil Barbato will have 60 varieties of tomatoes and nine varieties of garlic available for tasting. "Most are surprised in the variation of taste in garlic. It can vary by intensity of garlic flavor and by peppery hotness," Barbato explains. "The interesting thing about the tomatoes is the color and shape. They range from cherry to large and colors from yellow, to green to red. Some of them have the typical tomato taste and some are really sweet. Until you taste them all side by side, you don't get a chance to taste the difference in flavor." The day also will include entertainment from Long Island's own Porch Groove trio playing folk and other music genres.
TOMATOES AND A TOUR
WHEN | WHERE 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Aug. 16, 23 and 30, Sang Lee Farms, 25180 County Rd. 48, Peconic
INFO 631-734-7001, sangleefarms.com
Tour this organic farm and taste some of the varieties it grows.
WHEN | WHERE 7 p.m. Aug. 23, Newsday, 235 Pinelawn Rd., Melville
RULES Tomatoes must be homegrown, fresh and not previously frozen. Entries will be judged in three main categories - heaviest, smallest (measured, not weighed) and ugliest -- and in three youth categories for ages 6 and younger, 7-12 and 13-17. Tomatoes do not need to be ripe. Prizes will be awarded.